Today’s post takes a look at the latest Structured Sentencing Statistical Report from the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission.
This year’s report, available in full here, is based on data from Fiscal Year 2021. It is therefore the first report in which we can see a full year’s worth of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on sentencing volume and practice.
As always, remember that the report is based on sentencing episodes, defined as the most serious conviction for a defendant on a given day of court. There were 21,293 felony sentencing episodes during the report period, down from 24,027 in the previous year and 28,526 in the year before that. There were 81,276 misdemeanor episodes, down from 96,812 in the previous year. That continues a downward trend in misdemeanor convictions that long predates the pandemic. To illustrate, there were over 150,000 misdemeanor convictions in 2010.
Most common grid cell. As usual, Class H/Level II was the most frequently used of the 60 cells on the felony grid. It accounted for 2,309 sentences, which is—as it is almost every year—about 11 percent of all felony convcitions. Class A/Level V and Class A/Level VI were the least frequently used cells; they weren’t used at all. The vast majority of felonies, 88 percent, are low-level felonies (those in Class F through I).
Even fewer jury trials. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that there were very few convictions resulting from jury trials during this reporting period. There were 185 convictions by a jury, which is less than 1 percent of all convictions. Many Class H and I felonies were handled by guilty plea in district court—3,213 of them, to be exact. That’s down from the usual volume of about 5,000 felony pleas in district court annually. There were 3 convictions obtained through a bench trial, as allowed under a constitutional amendment enacted in 2014.
Convictions by district. The greatest number of convictions come from Wake County (District 10)—which I believe is the state’s most populous county now, having recently surpassed Mecklenburg (District 26). So, that’s not surprising. What might be surprising, though, is that District 26 has the seventh highest number of convictions. Ultimately, both major metropolitan areas have relatively low conviction rates when you adjust for population. The report includes Appendix C, Table 1, which shows the number of convictions per 1000 adults in each district. McDowell County has the highest number of convictions per capita.
Habitual felon convictions continued to decline, falling from 751 to 537. Usually breaking or entering is the most commonly habitualized offense, but for this reporting period, possession of methamphetamine was the most common.
Drug trafficking sentences likewise continued to decline, falling to 278 from the typical pre-pandemic number that hovered between 450 and 500. As in previous years, about 15 percent of trafficking convictions were sentenced to probation, indicating that the court found substantial assistance (or made a mistake in departing from the otherwise mandatory active sentence).
Average probation length. The average length of supervised probation was 25 months for felonies and 15 months for misdemeanors. Those durations are the same as in previous years.
The misleading dispositional breakdown. The dispositional breakdown for felonies is 34 percent active, 34 percent intermediate, and 32 percent community. However, I continue to think that breakdown is the product of a reporting glitch that vastly understates the number of intermediate sentences. A big chunk of the sentences scored as community came from grid cells that don’t have a “C” in them. My working theory on why that happens is that the court system computers will score a sentence as community if it doesn’t include at least one of the six probation conditions (special probation, intensive supervision, electronic house arrest, day-reporting center, residential program, or drug treatment court) that, before December 1, 2011, had to be imposed to make a sentence intermediate. For the last decade, the only requirement for a sentence to be intermediate is supervised probation. So, I think most felonies are being sentenced to intermediate punishment.
ASR. Advanced supervised release (ASR) was used 150 times, up from 130 times in the previous report. As in previous years, the largest number of those ASR sentences were for Class D felonies, where the ASR date can cut literally years off the defendant’s sentence.
Death and life. Fiscal year 2021 saw no death sentences, 19 life without parole sentences, and one young defendant sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. There were no life sentences imposed for violent habitual felons.
Firearm enhancement. As is almost always the case, the firearm enhancement of G.S. 15A-1340.16A was not used a single time.
There is so much more in the full report, including an extremely helpful table showing typical sentencing outcomes for the most charged offenses. As always, I thank the Commission staff for its thoughtful and careful work.