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Evaluation of North Carolina's Structured Sentencing Law, Final Report

NCJ Number
James J. Collins; Donna L. Spencer; George H. Dunteman; Harlene C. Gogan; Peter H. Siegel; Brad A. Lessler; Kenneth Parker; Thomas Sutton
Date Published
September 1999
91 pages
The North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission was created in 1990 to make recommendations regarding State criminal sentencing policies, and the North Carolina General Assembly adopted a structured sentencing law in 1993 that applies to all felony and misdemeanor crimes (except for driving while impaired), committed on or after October 1, 1994.
Structured sentencing represents a new way of sentencing offenders in North Carolina. Judges are provided with specific sentencing options for the type and length of sentence that may be imposed, based on calculations of the severity of the crime and on previous criminal records. Three types of punishments are stipulated under the structured sentencing law--active punishments (incarceration), intermediate punishments (probation), and community punishments (fines, restitution, treatment or community service). An analysis of the effects of structured sentencing on adjudication revealed structured sentencing did not bring about major changes in the adjudication process. There was a slight increase in the percentage of misdemeanor defendants with multiple charges and in the percentage of multi-charge felony defendants. A comparison of dismissals for the pre-structured sentencing and structured sentencing time periods indicated the rate of dismissal among misdemeanor defendants was 5 to 6 percent higher under structured sentencing and about 2 percent higher for felony defendants. The analysis also suggested a small increase in the percentage of structured sentencing defendant episodes resulting in negotiated pleas. Court data clearly showed the time required to adjudicate defendants under structured sentencing was 7 to 13 days longer than under the previous sentencing law. The structured sentencing law modified the incentives for prison inmates to follow institutional rules by reducing an inmate's capacity to earn sentencing reductions for good behavior. Empirical and anecdotal evidence from North Carolina's Department of Corrections showed inmates serving sentences under structured sentencing committed institutional infractions at a higher rate than inmates serving sentences under the previous sentencing law. Compared to inmates sentenced under the previous sentencing law, inmates sentenced under structured sentencing had higher overall infraction rates (25 percent higher for males and 55 percent higher for females), and prior time served had a direct effect on the infraction rate for both sexes in most infraction categories. Age was inversely related to infractions in that, as age increased, the likelihood of involvement in infractions decreased. Having a prior record of infractions during a previous incarceration was significantly associated with infractions during the current incarceration for both sexes. It was clear that, at least in the early years of structured sentencing, inmates sentenced under the new law posed more difficult prison management challenges than inmates sentenced under the previous sentencing law. Implications of the findings on the effects of sentencing reform on the adjudication process are discussed. An appendix compares data on offense classes under the previous sentencing law and under structured sentencing. 48 references and 17 tables