Pubdate: Sun, 28 Dec 2003
Source: Winston-Salem Journal (NC)
Copyright: 2003 Piedmont Publishing Co. Inc.
Note: The Journal does not publish letters from writers outside its daily 
home delivery circulation area.
Author: Associated Press


RALEIGH -- North Carolina is building three prisons and has approved 
financing for three more. That may not be enough to keep up with the parade 
of new prisoners.

The latest projections on the number of inmates indicate that the state 
will have to build several more prisons if legislators don't choose other 
options to reduce the need for cells.

The North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission's latest 
estimate last week indicates that the state will have 44,094 inmates behind 
bars by 2013, but will have only enough capacity for 37,743.

Such overcrowding could lead to federal intervention, as happened in the 
1980s when the state had a similar overcrowding problem.

The new estimates show a continued rise in the prison population.

Last year, the commission raised its estimates because convictions for 
murder, robberies and drug trafficking increased by about 20 percent. The 
commission took the same tack this year because of a 19 percent jump in 
habitual-felon convictions - the so-called three-strikes penalty - and 
about a 5 percent jump in drug-trafficking convictions.

Even when the third of the three prisons approved this year opens in 2008, 
the state will be nearly 2,000 beds short if no other measures are taken. 
That's the size of two, typical 1,000-bed maximum-security prisons, which 
cost the state about $80 million to build and $17 million a year to operate.

"We're predicting again this year a shortage, and it's not going to go 
away, even with the prisons we're building," said Susan Katzenelson, the 
executive director of the commission.

Next year, state legislators are expected to consider tougher penalties to 
combat domestic violence and a rising number of methamphetamine operations. 
But tougher penalties often lead to more inmates or longer sentences, and 
budget shortfalls make it harder to pay the additional cost of housing them.

So far, legislators have been unwilling to lessen penalties for any crime. 
The commission suggested several alternatives two years ago that could 
divert 4,600 prisoners over 10 years, but they have yet to gain traction 
because legislators fear they'll be branded soft on crime.
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