Hand on Gavel


The two primary changes to NC Sentencing laws were enacted in 1994 and 2011.  While most of the provisions in these two acts do not reduce the use of prisons are jails, there have been some key provisions that have caused North Carolina’s incarceration rate to grow at a slower rate than the national average and at a slower rate than any other Southern state. 

North Carolina currently operates under the “Structured Sentencing Act”, a law enacted in 1994.

The Structured Sentencing Act created 3 levels of sentencing:

  1. Active
  2. Intermediate, and
  3. Community.

The Intermediate section of the grid is particularly important because it clearly defines the way in which non-prison, community-based sanctions fit into the overall sentencing structure. Unfortunately, many of the community-based programs which served as Intermediate sanctions were eliminated, reduced or restructured in 2011, which has decreased the overall community resources.

The Structured Sentencing Act is monitored by the NC Sentencing Commission, a staff which provides detailed and thorough reports on the North Carolina’s sentencing policies and practices.

One of the advantages of Structured Sentencing is that North Carolina has dramatically improved its ability to project prison and community corrections populations with a high level of accuracy. With dozens of increased penalties being proposed every legislative session, it’s extremely important to determine the exact impact of proposals on the system and the state’s resources.

While nearly all NC prisoners were sentenced under Structured Sentencing, there are still a handful of long-term prisoners who were sentenced under the previous law, known as Fair Sentencing.

Justice Reinvestment

North Carolina enacted a major sentencing reform in 2011 entitled the Justice Reinvestment Act.

Major components of the Justice Reinvestment Act are summarized below. We periodically report on the status of  Justice Reinvestment components in our regular Policy Updates.

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Justice Reinvestment Act – What it Did

Part I – Supervised offenders based upon both risks and needs

        Delegated Authority to Probation to Impose 6 Days in Jail –  Allowed a judge to impose 6 days in jail (in 2 or 3 day increments) as a new condition of probation. The ability to impose jail days may be delegated to probation when an offender fails to comply with one or more conditions of probation.  The use of delegated authority to impose a jail sentence has been more gradual than many expected.

Part II – Expanded Post-Release Supervision – Post-release supervision was expanded to another 9,250 individuals by adding 9 months of supervision to Class F – I Felons.  3,188 Class B1 – E felons are supervised an additional 3 months longer from 9 months to 12 months.  In total, an additional 12,438 offenders require appropriate treatment services in order for recidivism to be reduced.  Those services are only available to a small portion of this group.  Supervision, without treatment, has not been shown to reduce recidivism.

        Revoked Post-release supervision for shorter periods – Revocation periods are set for 90 days at a time. These 90 day revocation periods can be imposed for violations of the conditions of probation.

Part III – Status Offense of Habitual Breaking and Entering – Created a new status offense for breaking and entering. On the second breaking and entering offense, an individual becomes a status offender and may be charged and sentenced as a Class E felon if the District Attorney chooses to do so.

Habitual felon – Changed the punishment for habitual felons to 4 classes above the underlying offense but in no case higher than Class C. The enacted language was a modest, but important, improvement from the previous habitual felon statute.

Part IV – Probation Violations Imposed for 90 days.    Unless an offender commits a new crime or absconds, probation violations result in up to two separate 90 day confinement periods. On the third violation of any condition of confinement, the court can revoke probation and impose the full suspended sentence.

Part V – Diversion Program / Felony Drug Possession – This provision expanded the pool of offenders eligible for a diversion program to include all offenders convicted of felony possession of a controlled substance (previous eligibility was limited to one gram of cocaine.) Eligible offenders must have no prior felony convictions. The expunction provision previously associated with possession of 1 gram of cocaine was also broadened to cover possession of a controlled substance or drug paraphenalia.

     Advanced Supervised Release –   Allowed early release from prison upon completion of certain programs but it has rarely been used.   It applies to offenders in Classes D through H.  If an individual  is sentenced under this provision and completes the risk reduction program he or she will be eligible for release after serving a sentence equal to 80% of the mitigated sentenced imposed.

Part VI – Criminal Justice Partnership Program –  Completely repealed the Partnership Program and replaced it with a totally new program entitled the Treatment for Effective Community Supervision Program.   Criminal Justice Partnership services stopped in all 100 counties in June, 2011 as the Department of Public Safety transitioned away from the Criminal Justice Partnership Program to Treatment for Effective Services. The new program:

  • Required funds to be awarded on a “bid” contract basis to providers operating “evidence-based” programs that meet the risks and needs identified in the risk instrument. No county currently previously operating a program was assured of funds.
  • Deleted any requirement for local boards or local planning but maintains a statewide advisory board.
  • The Department of Public Safety limited  substance abuse funding to 20% of funds and 80% of funds are expected to be allocated for cognitive behavioral intervention services.
  • Included individuals re-entering the community from prison who will become eligible for services along with medium and high risk probationers. Approximately 12,5000 additional individuals are in need of services.
  • Eliminated Day Reporting Centers – once recommended by the Department of Correction – as a funded category.
  • Required Misdemeanants to Serve Sentences in Local Jails – Misdemeanants sentenced from 3 – 6 months are now be confined in local jails as part of the statewide Misdemeanant Confinement Program.  $20 million in fees were collected by August, 2011 to reimburse counties for housing misdemeanants.   Fees continue to be collected, but none of these funds are reinvested in rehabilitative services designed to reduce recidivism.