Promising to get tough on crime has become popular with politicians and much of the public. But in the late 1980s, North Carolina came to realize that the promise can carry a high price resulting in expensive prison-building programs, diminished space for violent offenders, a mismatch between sentences and actual time served, violations of federal decrees on prison overcrowding, and, ultimately, a broad failure of public confidence in the judicial and corrections systems.
Following through on recommendations of the State's Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, the North Carolina legislature passed the Structured Sentencing law in 1993. It calls for sentencing guidelines based on a variety of factors, including the crime committed, the prior record of the offender, and nonprison alternatives. The Structured Sentencing program also includes the development of a prison population simulation model to estimate the additional prison and intermediate resources required to implement the Structured Sentencing law.
Structured Sentencing eliminates discrepancies in sentences and time served as well as disparities in sentencing across regions of the State and among offenders of different races and genders. Through the existence of uniform guidelines, offenders and the public now know with a high degree of certainty what will be the likely consequences of criminal convictions.
The State has reduced prison overcrowding by reserving prison for violent and career offenders. Nonviolent and nonrepeat offenders are diverted into less expensive intermediate punishments, varying in degrees from house arrest with electronic monitoring and closely supervised probation to community service and fines. Unlike some other states that promised to add nonprison sanctions to their corrections systems, but have not followed through with funding, North Carolina has developed and adequately funded and staffed these community corrections efforts. For example, the State has added over 500 new probation officers to oversee the influx of probationers and offered funds to all 100 counties to build up community-based rehabilitation programs.
The program is anything but "soft on crime," as some have alleged. Offenders released in 1993 the last year of the old system had on average served less than 20 percent of their sentenced time. Those incarcerated under the new system serve 100 percent of their minimum sentence; parole has been abolished for new offenders. Although fewer offenders are being sent to prison, those who are serve substantially more time than they did in the past; the average time served is 40 months compared to 16 months in 1993.
North Carolina's Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission blended together appropriate elements of various sentencing and correctional reforms in practice in other states to create the Structure Sentencing program. In doing so, the State aims to restore credibility in the criminal justice system by establishing truth in sentencing in a fiscally responsible way and by linking sentencing policies with correctional resources.