Pubdate: Tue, 7 Jul 2009
Source: Winston-Salem Journal (NC)
Copyright: 2009 Piedmont Publishing Co. Inc.
Note: The Journal does not publish LTEs from writers outside its 
circulation area


No reasonable person disputes that public safety is one of
government's core responsibilities. Systems for law enforcement,
criminal justice and incarceration must be strong enough to protect
law-abiding citizens from those who endanger them.

There are times, however, when legislators overreact to public fears
about crime and put disproportionately large resources into
incarceration. North Carolina's habitual-felons law is an example.

The General Assembly has an opportunity this year, in its closing
days, to improve a 42-year-old law that imprisons some nonviolent
repeat offenders for too long. It's not that we feel any sympathy for
these lawbreakers, but changing the law would amount to a better use
of tax money.

Prison space in the state is at a premium. North Carolina imprisons
more than 41,000 people at an average cost of about $75 a day, almost
$28,000 a year. For decades, some legislators have argued that the
state could save a lot of money if only we weren't so anxious to send
so many offenders to prison for overly long terms.

The habitual-felons law is one place to both save money and prison
space. Rep. Phil Haire, a six-term Democrat from Sylva and a
lawyer,told The Associated Press recently that it doesn't make any
sense to imprison someone for 10 years for a nonviolent, lower-level
felony, such as drug possession. Ten years, at $28,000 a year, is a
lot of tax money.

The habitual-felons law kicks in after someone has been convicted of
three felonies. That third felony means a person can be prosecuted for
the crime of habitual felon and get extra time. The sentence can be
very long.

Haire has proposed that the two least serious classes of felonies,
which include such crimes as minor drug possession, not count toward
habitual-felon status.

The seven other classes would continue to do so.

Furthermore, he proposes that the extra sentence be proportionate to
the sentence for the fourth offense, which in most cases would be
shorter than current sentencing standards provide.

Haire's bill does not deal with what is another of the current law's
flaws. It is left to the discretion of the local district attorney
whether to charge a defendant with the additional crime of being a
habitual felon. This means that the frequency of trials and
convictions for this add-on offense is widely different in the state's
various prosecutorial districts.

With the state's prisons bursting at the seams and the likelihood that
our incarcerated population will only grow, something smart needs to
be done.

Resources are not unlimited, so the smart thing would be for the state
to stop sentencing those who have committed less-serious crimes to
such long terms.

The money saved can be better spent locking away those who truly
threaten our society. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake