According to the Division of Adult Correction’s (DAC) website, there are about 38,900 people in prison in North Carolina today. That number actually overstates the real population slightly, because it includes the hundred or so people that are in escape status and a handful of others who are being held in other states for one reason or another. But still, that’s a lot of people. Some would say too many, and by international standards there may be something to that (see page 35 of the Pew Center’s recent report, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, comparing the per capita incarceration rate of the United States to the 26 largest European inmate populations).
Within the United States, though, North Carolina falls in the middle of the pack as far as incarceration rate (see page 34 of the document linked above). And looking at our own recent history, the prison population is as low as it has been for years. After a decade of steady increases, the population has dropped by about 3,000 inmates from a high of nearly 42,000 inmates in late 2009. Recently released projections from the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, available here, indicate that the population is likely to hold pretty steady at around 40,000 for the next decade. In previous reports (the 2009 report is available here), the Sentencing Commission had projected that the prison population would be pushing 50,000 by 2018. So what is going on?
It’s worth noting at the outset that North Carolina is not alone in seeing a declining number of inmates. Recent reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that half of state departments of correction reported similar declines in 2010. One thing that is clear is that leveling off and decline of the prison population preceded the effective date of the Justice Reinvestment Act, so it cannot be the cause of the change. What else has happened in North Carolina that would cause such a decline? I have three main thoughts.
First, felony conviction rates are down, resulting in an overall decrease of over 4 percent in the number of prison entries since 2009. That corresponds to an overall decrease in North Carolina’s crime rate and arrest rate over a similar time period, issues that are explored in greater detail in the Sentencing Commission’s population projection. Fewer entries to the system on the front end obviously leads to fewer inmates.
Second, those inmates who do enter the system are serving shorter sentences under changes made to Structured Sentencing in 2009. That year the General Assembly changed the permissible minimum sentence durations for Class B1 through G felonies so they grew by a standard 15 percent increment as you moved from left to right on the grid within a particular offense class. The legislature also changed the point ranges for prior record level for felony sentencing—most significantly, including a defendant with one prior record point in Prior Record Level I (under prior law, even one point moved a person into Prior Record Level II). When those laws were passed the Sentencing Commission projected that they would lead to prison bed saving of about 500 beds by this year. (You can read a more detailed review of those changes here.)
Third, inmates are serving a smaller percentage of those shortened sentences under recent changes to DAC’s sentence credit policy. Effective last summer, the prison system increased the rate at which it awards earned time by 50 percent, upping the rate from 2, 4, or 6 days per month to 3, 6, or 9 days per month, depending on the particular job or program completed. The system also started automatically awarding 3 days of credit per month to “assignment pending” inmates upon their entry into prison. Those changes are already having an effect on the average percentage of a sentence that actually gets served—especially for low-level felons who, under the old rules, often weren’t in prison long enough to accrue much earned time at all. The latest version of DAC’s sentence credit policy is available here.
Other factors are certainly at play. To name a few, the growth in North Carolina’s overall population has leveled off after increasing by over 18 percent between 2000 and 2010. The median age of that population has also grown by a couple of years (from 35 to 37), and older people are less likely to commit crimes. And limitations in the state budget may have affected the court system’s capacity to process new cases. I’m sure there are others, and I hope that our readers—many of whom have a front-row seat to the system at work—will weigh in with their thoughts about what they think is happening. Justice Reinvestment will likely drive our population down even a little bit further, but projections from the Sentencing Commission suggest that the difference is about equal to the number of misdemeanants shifted from the prison system to the jails under the new law. I don’t think we’ll know for sure until we see how other new aspects of the law, like Advanced Supervised Release and habitual breaking and entering, are incorporated into practice.