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June 8, 2009

"Low-level felons add millions to spending"

The title of this post is the headline of this article from North Carolina providing another local dispatch from the prison economy. Here is how the piece begins:

North Carolina's habitual-felon law is powerful: A three-time criminal who breaks into a parking meter or has a crack pipe with cocaine residue can be sentenced as if he were a rapist.

It is expensive: These longer sentences add an average $195,000 in prison costs for each habitual felon, an analysis by The News & Observer of Raleigh shows.  Since the law took effect in 1994, taxpayers have committed an additional $1.5billion to house habitual felons  — and an additional $264million to build prisons for them.

And it is untouchable at the General Assembly.  District attorneys and sheriffs have squashed all attempts to change it by painting opponents as coddlers of criminals, said former Rep. Joe Kiser, a Republican and the former sheriff of Lincoln County. “I blocked it every time,” Kiser said. “I'd say, ‘Here we go, soft on crime again.'”

Being tough on crime has been hard on the state budget.  And now that the state has a $4.5 billion shortfall, fighting a path toward fiscal health has seldom been so critical. In the past, the General Assembly has been unwilling to take tough stands. Legislators are afraid to end goodies for powerful industries, kill pet projects or make hard calls on crime issues that provide fodder for attack ads....

In the case of habitual felons, changing the law would bring gradual but significant savings.  If the state stopped sentencing people to eight to 10 years for low-level offenses, it would save roughly $5million in the first year.  The savings would compound each year, saving the state a total of $190million after five years.

Since the law was passed, the prison population has grown steadily, from 27,052 in June 1995 to more than 41,000 this year.

In that period, the Department of Correction has been on a construction binge, opening 20 prisons that hold a total of 16,424 inmates.  Building prisons is not cheap; it costs $66,000 per inmate to build a medium-security prison and $28,000 a year to house each prisoner.  Despite its costs, the law has been unchanged since it was approved 15 years ago.

June 8, 2009 at 07:05 AM | Permalink

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