The Laws Are A-Changin’: A Look into the North Carolina’s Statewide Misdemeanant Confinement Program

By: M. Claire Donnelly

As of January 1, 2015, new North Carolina law is in effect that requires all misdemeanor and Chapter 20 sentences[1] to be served at the local county jail.[2] This newest change to the sentencing laws is a component of the Statewide Misdemeanant Confinement Program (“SMCP”), which was established by the North Carolina Justice Reinvestment Act (“JRA”). Originally established to “improve public safety, reduce corrections spending, and reinvest savings in strategies that can decrease crime and reduce recidivism,” the JRA policies began reforming the North Carolina criminal sentencing statutes in 2011. While these goals of the JRA seem to show that the legislation was passed to benefit the system, further consideration needs to be made: is housing misdemeanants at the county jail truly benefitting the criminal justice system?

Development of the Law

To start, the difference between jails, also known as “local confinement facilities,” and prisons, should be noticed. Jails are run by the local government and are “used to confine persons who are awaiting trial on criminal charges, are serving short sentences imposed for conviction of a crime, or are being held for a variety of other reasons.” Prisons are operated by the state government and are generally for individuals sentenced for longer periods of time.

Inmates at a cell block of the New Hanover County Jail.  Photo courtesy of StarNews.

Inmates at a cell block of the New Hanover County Jail.  Photo courtesy of StarNews.

Prior to the enactment of the JRA, North Carolina was only one of two states that sent misdemeanants to prison.[3] Thus, North Carolina prisons had very high populations as compared to other states, and they continued to do nothing climb. Between 2000 and 2010 alone, the North Carolina Department of Corrections reported a 27 percent growth in prison population, increasing the number of prisoners by more than 40,000. The State projected that the number would continue to climb, estimating that by 2020, there would be a 10 percent increase in prison population.

Because of the growth, the State reached out to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which conducted research and data on the criminal justice system.[4] Strategies to improve the system were made and the JRA was introduced to curb the rising numbers. Initially, the JRA sought to correct several issues in North Carolina, not just misdemeanants in prison; major changes have also been made to active time for probation violations, exiting prison without community supervision, and the allocation of community supervision resources. Now reports are coming out that nationwide state prisons are going to experience a three percent growth by 2018, while North Carolina is reporting an eight percent decrease.

In 2011, the original change to the, JRA in regards to misdemeanor charges, was that sentences 180 days or less would be within the SMCP. Under that law, all sentences over 180 days and certain Chapter 20 driving violations would be served in prison. Now the law requires that “[a]ll misdemeanor sentences in excess of 90 days and all DWI sentences, regardless of length, are served through the State Misdemeanant Confinement Program … at a local confinement or treatment facility, not in prison.” Because the new law now includes all DWI sentences, an individual could get up to 36 months in a local county jail, which is the maximum sentence under the DWI laws. This 36-month sentence is an alarmingly higher sentence than the 180 days of the SMCP’s original sentencing guidelines. 

Justice v. Money

The legislature is touting the SMCP because it is a moneymaker. In this most recent change to the JRA, the SMCP proposal received bipartisan support in the General Assembly. Money is the likeliest motivator: 10 state prisons have closed since 2011, which is projected to save the state $48 million; a reported $560 million dollars will be “saved or avert[ed]” by 2017; and these savings come with a $9 million annual budget for treatment and community-based programs that remains the same as it was prior to the change. The legislature needs to look past the dollar signs. The original monetary goal of the program was two-fold: to truly “avert” the savings and to compensate the local jails for housing misdemeanor offenders. Neither of these goals is getting accomplished.

First, the goal of the JRA and the prison closures was that money would be re-directed to hire new probation officers. Hiring an estimated 300 new probation officers under Governor Pat McCrory’s proposed budget would not only beef up the currently-existing probation officer staff of 1,500, but would also allow more offenders to receive supervised probation rather than active time. No change to the budget to allow for this has been made.

Second, the compensation for local jails causes financial strain for local government. The state is providing $40 a day for each individual incarcerated at the local jail under the SMCP. This is attractive to jails that may have extra beds and can opt-into the program, however, the costs to house an offender in a jail is much higher than just $40 in North Carolina. In 2011, the Department of Corrections estimated the actual cost was $64.59 per day. New Hanover County estimates the cost is currently somewhere closer to $80 to $90 per day. In a recent project with Mecklenburg County, Clinic members learned that costs to house an individual were higher than $150 a day. Thus, while it may be helpful to get money for empty beds now, as more people stay at the county jail, local governments will face a serious financial strain under this model.

 Effects on Offenders

Statistics make the JRA look good on paper—and the long-term benefits may ultimately be good—however, one cannot help but to question the conditions and lack of programs of county jails as compared to state prisons. In the Justice Reinvestment Act Implementation Evaluation Report, an alarming statement confirms this consideration that needs to be made: “Programming (e.g. substance abuse treatment, CBI programming) for offenders housed pursuant to the SMCP is not available; generally, programming is not required in local jails.” With the minimal monetary allotment that counties are getting to house these misdemeanants, there are no additional funds available to provide the aforementioned resources they would have generally gotten in prison.

Along with lack of programming, it is unclear what will become of the good credit policies that exist for inmates. North Carolina’s Department of Corrections offered a variety of credit gaining programs for inmates, through the Inmate Nonprofit Program and other sentence reduction policies. The policies state: “When inmates are assigned to local confinement facilities or jails… the Sheriff or Administrator of the local confinement facility shall establish procedures for granting, approving, and documenting sentence reduction credit awards.” This potentially may cause another strain on local jails, in addition to monetary strains.

A noted benefit of the program is that it puts offenders closer to their families, being that they are not transferred to one of the state prisons, but rather remain in the county in which they committed the crime, or in a nearby county. So far 50 of the 100 counties have committed to participate in the SMCP, each with a varying number of available beds. While it may be positive for some offenders to be closer to friends and family, several realities may outweigh this benefit. Some incarcerated individuals do not have friends and family support. Others have been charged with a crime far away from home, making the goal of incarcerating them near home impossible. And this benefit is easy to evaporate, as once beds fill up in a jail that participates in the SMCP, the jail can “withdraw from the program completely,” causing those that would be near home to not reap this benefit of the program.

While the state makes money, potential harm could be occurring to the criminal justice system. Length of stay in local jails is now an issue. This issue needs to be addressed because several problems are going to occur to the local governments, and the resources available to inmates are evaporating. With the JRA, the state has saved money and the inmate population has been reduced, but has this occurred to the detriment of our system?

For more detailed information on the JRA and the other major changes it enacted, see the Justice Reinvestment Act Implementation Evaluation Report or the Justice Reinvestment in North Carolina: Three Years Later Report.

[1] Most states keep misdemeanants—individuals convicted of a misdemeanor—at the local jail because misdemeanor offenses are nominal crimes compared with felony offenses.

[2] The Council of State Governments Justice Center is a nonprofit devoted to “provid[ing] practical, nonpartisan advice and evidence-based, consensus-driven strategies to increase public safety and strengthen communities.” More information about the Justice Center can be found at http://csgjusticecenter.org.

[3] Chapter 20 violations covered by this statute include Driving While Impaired (DWI), Driving with a License Revoked (DWLR), and other motor vehicle violations.

[4] N.C.G.S. 15A-1352(a).

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