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December 17, 2008

Sentencing toughness one-way-ratchet warming up in North Carolina

Despite tough budget times and lots of reason to believe over-punishment is a bigger problem than under-punishment, the social and political forces that drive (very costly) sentencing toughness seem to be heating up in North Carolina.  Here are the details from this local article:

Gov. Mike Easley said today the principal flaw in the state's probation system is it lets the wrong people out of jail. He said his administration has asked for more money and more probation officers to help fix it.

"The current system puts people on probation who shouldn't be on probation," Easley said in an interview with The News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer. "Until those people are put behind bars, this is going to continue."

The News & Observer published a three-part series last week highlighting 580 cases of probationers who killed while out of prison since 2000 and a system that has lost track of thousands of convicted criminals. Easley's comments come after not responding for one month to interview requests from The News & Observer about the state's probation system.

Easley said his administration has asked for additional money for prison cells and probation officers, because a primary problem is that more prisoners need to be kept behind bars. "When you put mean people on the street, they do mean things," he said. "If they need 24/7 supervision, they should be in jail."  He said when the legislature is asked for funding, the money doesn't come through until months later because of the length of the budget process.

I would be especially grateful to hear from folks with on-the-ground knowledge of North Carolina's system to know whether there is good sentencing sense behind the Governor's new tough talk.

December 17, 2008 at 09:49 AM | Permalink


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580 killed in 8 years is a staggering number. Seems like Easley is correct. Perhaps, Doug, you could have a little more concern about protecting society in your posts.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 17, 2008 10:06:56 AM

Federalist: during the same period in NC, there were over 5000 deaths caused by drunk driving (and over 12,000 total highway fatalities). Consequently, someone truly concerned about "protecting society" in NC should probably be 10 times more worried about drunk and reckless drivers than about probationers.

Of course, it is more politically acceptable to attack all probationers than to attack everyone who drives poorly. But there are lots of reasons, especially during the holiday season, to think that Gov. Easley could/should do a lot more to safeguard his citizens on roads than to broadly call for spending more money locking up a lot more people.

In addition, other stats show that perhaps as many as 1000 persons in NC died as a result of domestic violence during this period (a total which may overlap a lot with the 580 number you find staggering). Perhaps the Governor should focus on more initiatives to cut deal with DV, rather than just focus on probationers.

Or, if we are really going to worry about public safety, we should surely urge Gov Easley to focus on guns: NC averages roughly 1,200 gun death each year according to various statistics.

Again, my point is not to assert that deaths caused by folks on probation should not be a concern. Rather, my goal is to put that number into some relative persective to show that having "a little more concern about protecting society" does not mean calling for ever-tougher sentences every time we see a number in the newspaper that bother us.

Posted by: Douglas A. Berman | Dec 17, 2008 12:14:01 PM

But surely the goal of the criminal justice system is to incapacitate people who are likely to commit murders if left free, and these statistics certainly seem to suggest that North Carolina's system hasn't been as effective at distinguishing people who need to be detained from those who can safely be released. The point about drunk driving, etc., is a bit of a non sequitur; if the state's criminal justice system is functioning sub-optimally, the fact that other state programs could also be improved hardly seems an excuse for failing to correct the perceived defects. Moreover, Professor, are you aware of what Easley is or is not doing with respect to drunk driving and domestic violence? For all we know he's sponsoring programs to reduce those deaths as well; your response to federalist at least offers no indication that he is not. Finally, the quoted article notes that the North Carolina system "has lost track of thousands of convicted criminals." I would think we can all agree that Easley's proposal to increase the number of probation officers necessary to adequately keep track of North Carolina's probation/parolee population is an eminently reasonable one?

Posted by: | Dec 17, 2008 12:57:44 PM

12:57:44 PM: You make much sounder points than federalist, and my response to him was driven by his assertions that 580 killed in 8 years is "a staggering number" and that my posts should show "more concern about protecting society." As I indicated before, this number killed ought to be places in some context before we jump to certain policy conclusions.

Also, reflect a bit on the debatable assertion that the "goal of the criminal justice system is to incapacitate people who are likely to commit murders if let free." People with a history of drunk driving (or with a family history of alcoholism) are probably more likely than others to kill with their cars. Should our criminal justice system lock a lot of these folks up to avoid preventable deaths on the roads?

Or, to vary your final point, consider whether we would all agree that a proposal to increase the number of police check points to adequately keep track of North Carolina's drunk driving population is an eminently reasonable one?

My point is not that the criminal justice system in NC and elsewhere cannot be improved. Of course criminal justice systems can and should be made better, and all government programs should be improved as we learn about their flaws and suffer the consequences of poorly run or misguided government programs. My point rather is to encourage sober reflection on costs and benefits before readily concluding that we need to get tougher on the probation population. There are lots of ways for state governments to make its citizens safer, and these days I tend to think there are greater safety benefits likely to be gained from government programs that are more socially benefiticial than just locking more people in cages.

Posted by: Douglas A. Berman | Dec 17, 2008 1:15:08 PM

Doug, where to start?

First of all, your "just locking more people in cages" comment is simply sophistry. You purport to want to engage in "sober reflection", yet you resort to inflammatory statement such as those. It seems obvious that NC has a problem with probationers committing horrible offenses (e.g., Eve Carson), and Easley is committed to doing something about it.

Second, your comparison to drunk driving borders on silly. We cannot preventatively lock up people with a family history of alcoholism. As for drunk driving, there are ways we can address that problem too. It's not an all or nothing thing.

Third, I don't think that Easley wants to "get tougher on the probation population" as a whole, I think his issue is that the wrong people are getting probation, and he wants to make sure that probation is a better run program. Doug, even you can understand that releasing a criminal into society is a very risky business. Easley wants to better assess the risk. The criminals who murdered Eve Carson had previously committed serious crimes, yet were out on the streets. It's a story that has been repeated countless times. Serious offenders get light sentences, and innocent people pay the price.

Instead of outrage about that state of affairs, you are upset about Easley being a big meanie.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 17, 2008 2:22:13 PM

As someone who practices in North Carolina, my first hand experience has been that sentencing in North Carolina is a mess. Probation officers are overwhelmed. The prisons are overcrowded. Habitual felons account for a large portion of the prison population and many of them have no violent history but have committed enough b&e's and larcenies to expose them to punishment as a habitual felon - and there is no probationary option for those offenders. Easley's statement "The current system puts people on probation who shouldn't be on probation," may be valid. But who should make that determination? The judge? The overworked probation officer? The sentencing grid is mandatory in North Carolina and it mandates when an active sentence must be imposed. Sometimes it is discretionary and when that is the situation there will always be those that get probation that shouldn't and those that don't that should. In 06/07 about 8% of offenders in the discretionary cell received a community punishment which would supervised or unsupervised probation. The majority received an intermediate sentence which could be intensive probation or a split sentence or a few other options. 39% received an active sentence. As the offender's record got worse there was a greater chance of receiving an active sentence. I suggest taking a look at the Sentencing Commission's Fiscal Report http://www.nccourts.org/Courts/CRS/Councils/spac/Documents/06-07statisticalreport.pdf. It gives the costs and numbers that show that it may be a small number of probationers that are giving the entire system a bad name.

There has been plenty of bad press about the probation system but not many solutions suggested beside more prisons.

Posted by: Amanda | Dec 17, 2008 3:05:04 PM

federalist, where to start?

First of all, your concern about my "just locking more people in cages" comment is hard to understand. This phrase simply describes the reality of incarceration, what makes it "inflammatory"?

Second, why is my comparison to drunk driving silly? You find staggering that 580 have been killed in 8 years by probationers in NC, I find staggering that more than this number of victims are killed each year by drunk drivers in NC. You urge more concern about public safety concerning probationers, I urge more concern about public safety concerning drivers. I agree that these are not all/nothing questions, but how we spend public monies to improve public safety is a zero sum game unless we raise taxes or find new revenue streams.

Third, I hope your right that the Gov just wants to make probation a better run program, but the article suggests Easley believes "more prisoners need to be kept behind bars." I share your concern that when serious offenders get light sentences, and innocent people pay the price, though the price may be higher in the drunk driving context in term of pure numbers than anywhere else. And when minor offenders get serious sentences, taxpayers pay the price in addition to our commitment to human liberty.

I have not meant to express outrage toward Easley, I just concerned about whether "keeping more people behind bars" is the optimal way to achieve to improve public safety. Amanda's very helpful comment highlights that the real problem here --- like all hard government problems --- is a lot more complicated than a few sound-bites. Sadly, crime policy has been too often driven by sound bites (and Eve Carson anecdotes), rather than by good cost/benefit data.

If you can assure me that Easley is focused on sound cost/benefit decision-making, I will be looking forward to what comes next NC. But if he just advocates more prisons and more prisoners without considering the costs of this approach, I'm less optimistic.

Posted by: Douglas A. Berman | Dec 17, 2008 7:57:52 PM

"Easley wants to better assess the risk." I found this sentence to be rather humourous about Governer Easley. He wants to better assess the risk of people getting out of jail and that fine and good and I agree. Governor Easley absolutely refuses to assess risk of giving pardons to people in North Carolina that truly deserve a second chance.In fact he likes to brag about not giving pardons. Sorry Doug I know this is slightly off the topic but I am one Tarheel that is ready for Governor Easley to go. He has been Governor of our great state 8 years to long!!

Posted by: BS | Dec 17, 2008 8:27:36 PM

Thanks, BS. I had a vague feeling that Governor Easley has not had an inspired record on various criminal justice issues, which is one reason I specifically asked in this post folks with on-the-ground knowledge of North Carolina's system to weigh in. Unfortunately, my (over?)reaction to federalist's first comment got the discussion a bit off track.

Thanks again.

Posted by: Douglas A. Berman | Dec 18, 2008 8:02:03 AM

Prison systems need to rehabilitate instead of simply "warehousing" prisoners, then probation might not be so risky. The current environment is not successful at helping change behavior among inmates and the longer they stay, the worse they become. If they were angry at their circumstances before they went in, they are extremists when they get out and many do not make it through the probationary period. They either commit a crime or an infraction of the probationary requirements.

You are correct that the NC governor does not have an inspired record on criminal justice issues, but why single him out? There are only a small handful of politicians that have even basic knowledge of this extremely flawed system.

Posted by: MM | Dec 18, 2008 8:46:17 AM

Your comment about drunk drivers was silly: "People with a history of drunk driving (or with a family history of alcoholism) are probably more likely than others to kill with their cars. Should our criminal justice system lock a lot of these folks up to avoid preventable deaths on the roads?" Even if meant for effect, your talk of locking up those with family history of alcoholism is just plain silliness.

Additionally, while I agree that more should be done to prevent drunk-driving deaths, there is also political reality. Even if advisable, society simply is not going to lock up every DUI offender for extended periods of time. So it's not really as simple as the zero-sum game you're talking about. Moreover, since probationers are supervised by the state, when they kill it's more of a responsibility of the state.

I wholeheartedly agree that cost-benefit analysis has to be done when it comes to criminal justice policy. As I have stated in numerous posts, a prison bed is a scarce resource--it should be used effectively. Perhaps that means that infirm prisoners are released; perhaps that means that we have an aggressive clemency program to identify truly rehabilitated criminals for early release; perhaps that means that we focus less on drug offenses and more on rapists. But the reality is that locking up violent criminals for serious stretches of time is generally cost-effective. Many many criminals are repeat offenders--crime is what they do, and when we lock them up, we prevent untolled criminal activity. That's the reality, and your constant harping on increased incarceration pooh-poohs this reality. Eve Carson may be an anecdote, but there are at least 579 more people like her in NC. That's emblematic of a problem, and a serious one.

Easley is an ex-prosecutor, and he is tough on crime. He only grants pardons for proven innocence (which I agree is problematic).

And as for your feigned confusion about "locking people in cages", gimme a break. We're not talking about "people", we're talking about criminals, i.e., people who have done something to deserve being locked up.

By the way, what sentence do you think is appropriate for the run-of-the-mill armed robbery committed with a gun? How about a home invasion rape? Or what about the 12 home invasions committed by one of the guys who murdered the Petit family in Connecticut. Or what about the accused murderer of members of Jennifer Hudson's family (he had a conviction for attempted murder and carjacking)?

Posted by: federalist | Dec 18, 2008 11:02:26 AM

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