04/15/04 — Sentencing: Habitual-felon law should be changed

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Sentencing: Habitual-felon law should be changed

It is well known that the taxpayers are paying an astronomical cost for the war on drugs. We usually think of that money being spent on the streets — police fighting drug dealers and users.

But there is another significant cost that gets less attention: the cost of keeping those who are arrested locked up.

Not just those charged with having drugs or selling them but, primarily, addicts who commit thefts and other crimes to feed their habits. Their numbers are ever increasing, and there seems to be no limit to the amount of tax money needed to build and maintain prisons for them.

That is one reason that the Legislature should give serious consideration to recommendations to modify North Carolina’s habitual-felon law.

That law requires stiff prison sentences for defendants who are convicted on a fourth felony charge.

Prosecutors find it to be a handy club when they are plea-bargaining with someone who is charged with his fourth felony. It can also help to get incorrigible thieves out of our hair for a long time.

The trouble is that it treats relatively minor felonies too much like the more serious ones, and that is one reason we need to build or expand so many new prisons.

The N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, which advises the legislature, is expected to recommend changes in the law this year. The commission estimates that its proposals would obviate the need of about 1,900 prison beds over 10 years. At the cost of maximum-security prisons, that represents a saving of nearly $160 million in construction costs and $38 million in operating costs.

As modified, the law would treat less serious felonies differently. Instead of being automatically elevated to a class of felony that carries a mandatory four-year prison sentence, without parole, the fourth conviction of some crimes would actuate a shorter mandatory sentence. A few charges would not count at all toward habitual felon status.

The changed law would still leave prosecutors with bargaining leverage for serious crimes. We also have North Carolina’s 10-year-old Structured Sentencing Act. Under that law, sentences grow longer according to the number of times a defendant has been convicted. And the law does not provide for parole.

The biggest reason for changing the habitual-felon law, of course, would be to ensure justice to those who might otherwise be given overly harsh sentences. But in this time of high taxes and tight state budgets, the practical aspect cannot be overlooked.

Published in Editorials on April 15, 2004 12:54 PM