Pubdate: Fri, 05 Jan 2007
Source: Winston-Salem Journal (NC)
Copyright: 2007 Piedmont Publishing Co. Inc.
Note: The Journal does not publish LTEs from writers outside its 
circulation area


Tough criminal sentences are popular with the voters. So are lower

North Carolinians are learning, once again, that they can't have both
at the same time. They'll have to decide which they want if they are
to avoid the kind of costly and dangerous prison crowding problems the
state experienced throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The state's prison population is on the rise, and it appears that the
latest construction push won't meet demand for inmate beds. The latest
estimates from the N.C. Department of Correction say that even with
the completion of prisons set to open in 2008, the state will still be
400 beds shy of what it needs to house all its inmates that year.

That wasn't supposed to happen again. In the 1990s, the General
Assembly devised a long-term stabilizing strategy. Legislators managed
prison populations through structured sentencing and provided the
required number of prison beds with new construction.

But this state is growing faster than most projections ever warned,
and the Department of Correction now says that North Carolina will
have 6,400 more inmates than beds in 2016 if something isn't done in
the intervening years. There are two "somethings" that can be done:
The state can build more prisons, or it can reduce sentences.

Legislators this year should look into both options. The correction
department has a 10-year construction plan on the table to accommodate
7,650 more inmates. At a cost of $260 million, the state would build
two new prisons and expand others.

Then, the state would also add four new health facilities for inmates,
at a cost of more than $300 million.

Given the growth of the state's population, the deterioration from age
of some of the state's prisons and the popularity of tough sentences,
it is certain that the legislature will have to find the money for
some, if not most, of the building plan.

Crime is not going away, so we will always have criminals. On the
other hand, the legislature must take a serious look at the sentences
now handed down. Tops on that agenda for review should be nonviolent
and drug offenders. North Carolina deals very strictly with both. If
sentences can be appropriately reduced, the state can save a lot of
taxpayer money over the years.

Doing nothing is not an option. The state tried that in the early
1980s, and the problem quickly became serious. The state was on the
brink of losing control of its prisons to a federal judge, and
criminals were being paroled without ever setting foot in prison.
There are tough and expensive choices ahead. They can't be avoided.
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