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Evaluation of North Carolina's Structured Sentencing Law, Research in Brief

NCJ Number
James J. Collins; Donna L. Spencer
Date Published
9 pages
This document summarizes the results of a study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice that evaluated the effects of a 1994 legislated sentencing reform in North Carolina.
The North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission was created in 1990 to make recommendations on State criminal sentencing policies. The structured sentencing law, adopted in 1993, 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. These sentencing options are derived from calculations of the severity of the crime and are based 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 structured sentencing in North Carolina found the sentencing approach did not result in 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 multiple charge felony defendants charged with both felony and misdemeanor offenses. A comparison of dismissals for pre-structured sentencing and structured sentencing time periods indicated the rate of dismissal among misdemeanor defendants was 4 to 5 percent higher under structured sentencing and about 2 percent higher for felony defendants. Results also suggested a small increase in the percentage of structured sentencing defendant episodes with negotiated pleas. Further, 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. 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). 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. 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 for sentencing reform and the adjudication process are discussed.