One of the deepest cuts in the North Carolina budget proposals under consideration comes from closing several state prisons – tens of millions of dollars diverted and hundreds of jobs lost.
The rationale from budget writers in the House, Senate and governor’s office: There are fewer prisoners in North Carolina than there used to be. The prison population is declining because the state’s growth rate is slowing down – especially for males 16-24, who are the most likely people to get arrested – and because crime trends are going down across the country.
But the main reason for the shrinking prisons is the state’s massive revision of its sentencing laws, which is meant to keep as many offenders out of prison as possible through closer supervision and treatment. One part of the Justice Reinvestment Act, approved by the legislature last session, shifts those who have committed misdemeanors from prisons into county jails. Another provision increases the amount of a sentence to be served in jail instead of prison.
The impact has already begun to be measured.
State prison admissions have dropped 17 percent from fiscal year 2010-11 to 2011-12 – a decrease of nearly 5,000 admissions. More than two-thirds of that decline is attributed to the Justice Reinvestment Act, which took effect in January 2012, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
After the initial effect of the sentencing reform, North Carolina’s prison population is projected to level off over the next nine years. But for now, it has dropped dramatically from a high of nearly 42,000 inmates in 2009 to a little more than 37,000 at the start of this year.
But to make the Justice Reinvestment Act work requires a big infusion of new probation officers as well as options for drug counseling and other kinds of treatment in communities across the state. Money to supervise ex-offenders would come from the prison closures, but just how much will be budgeted to make the sentencing reforms happen remains to be seen.
Last year, the reforms received overwhelming bipartisan support, but the General Assembly didn’t budget any additional money for probation officers. Still, its main proponent is optimistic.
“We have every reason to believe that the Justice Reinvestment initiative will be successful in providing rehabilitation to offenders and reducing recidivism,” David Guice, commissioner of the adult correction division in the Department of Public Safety, said Friday. “The rest of the country is looking to us as a model.”
But, Guice said, keeping the momentum of reform moving forward will take the $20 million that Gov. Pat McCrory has proposed in his budget. That would pay for about 300 new probation officers and beef up the state’s parole and probation commission to watch over an estimated 15,000 new offenders who will be on supervised release instead of in prison.
Neither the Senate nor the House budget matches McCrory’s proposed funding.
In the interim, the Department of Public Safety has begun reclassifying vacant positions to create more probation officers. As of February, the department had filled 31 of the new positions and was hiring for an additional 19. There are a total of 1,500 probation officer positions.
Meanwhile, the Justice Reinvestment Act is off and marching toward the goal of providing sufficient oversight and treatment to keep people out of prison or jail.
The shift to county jails
County jails have already begun to house prisoners who have been transferred there.
Guice, a former probation officer and Republican member of the General Assembly who shepherded the reforms into law, insisted from the beginning that counties wouldn’t have to take prisoners if they didn’t want to, and if they did they would be reimbursed.
So far, 50 of the state’s counties have signed up to take on the misdemeanor prisoners, making room for about 1,600 slots. Ninety-three of the state’s 100 counties have jails.
Reimbursement of $40 a day for each prisoner comes from a new fund created from increases in court costs, which has added up to $39.5 million. Last year, nearly $10 million of the fund was paid to the county jails. The N.C. Sheriffs’ Association receives a cut of that to administer the program. It researched and is running the system of finding space in county jails. The House and Senate budgets call for reducing the sheriffs’ share from 10 percent to 5 percent.
Eddie Caldwell, vice president and general counsel of the sheriffs’ association, said counties can opt in or out depending on how much room they have over time. He said the reimbursement rate is, generally speaking, sufficient. “If you’re running a jail and you’ve got a wing fully staffed with two extra beds in it, you can put inmates in that bed for $40 or less,” Caldwell said. “You’ve already got officers working, utilities hooked up. If you have to open a wing and staff it, turn on the utilities, then that’s probably not enough. If you have to build a wing, that’s clearly not enough.”
He said there is enough space for prisoners, and the jails are nowhere near full capacity. Caldwell said, from the sheriffs’ perspective, the Justice Reinvestment Act is working.
Keeping inmates near home
“It’s been an extremely successful program for the state and for the counties and the whole criminal justice system, and even for the inmates,” Caldwell said.
With shorter sentences and offenders assigned to jails as close to home as possible, they have a better chance of staying out of trouble if they have constant contact with their families, Caldwell said.
The Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, which examines criminal justice issues in the state, in a report issued in April noted that success of the Justice Reinvestment Act depends on having enough probation officers and community treatment. It also says a statewide data-collection system to track jail placements is a “critical component” in measuring whether the program is successful.
According to a report to the General Assembly in March, the Department of Public Safety has entered into contracts for community programs in 76 counties so far, focusing on treating those who are considered at high risk of going back to prison.
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