Changes to the Habitual Felon Law

As part of the Justice Reinvestment project, analysts from the Council of State Governments (CSG) looked at how the habitual felon law is used in North Carolina. In general, the analysts recognized the law as a valuable tool for prosecutors (its use was on the rise between 2005 and 2009), but they also cited some indications that the law could benefit from a little recalibration. For instance, they noted that a clear majority of defendants convicted under the law get sentenced in the mitigated range. According to N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission data from fiscal year 2009-2010, 69 percent of habitual felons received mitigated sentences (compared to 27 percent of felonies generally), with an additional 11 percent sentenced at the very bottom of the presumptive range. That large percentage of mitigated-range sentences was viewed as an indication that the system is uncomfortable with cliff effect that exists under current law: all habitualized crimes, regardless of offense class, are sentenced as Class C felonies—even though most principal felonies triggering the law’s application are Class G, H, or I offenses. At the same time, CSG focus group meetings with prosecutors and law enforcement officials indicated that for some offenders—especially those involved in breaking or entering crimes—the habitual punishment was appropriate and couldn’t come soon enough.

Based on those findings, the Justice Reinvestment Act (S.L. 2011-192) made two key changes related to the habitual felon law. The first change is an amendment to our existing habitual felon law. The second is the creation of a new habitual breaking and entering status offense. I’ll discuss the first change today and then walk through the new habitual B & E law in a post next week.

Under the revised habitual felon law, effective for principal felonies committed on or after December 1, 2011, a habitualized crime will be punished “at a felony class level that is four classes higher than the principal felony . . . but under no circumstances . . . higher than a Class C felony.” G.S. 14-7.6. The practical result of that change is that habitualized Class I felonies will be sentenced as Class E felonies; Class H felonies will be sentenced as Class D felonies; and everything else will be Class C, just like under existing law. (A few readers may remember that the Sentencing Commission offered a similar alternative—a three-class enhancement—back in 2002.)

A novelty of the new graduated enhancement is that some Class I felons habitualized to Class E will fall into “I/A” cells on the sentencing grid, making it possible for the first time that a habitual felon could get probation. It’s not obvious how the law’s requirement that habitual sentences run consecutively to any sentence being served applies to a suspended sentence. It could mean that the probation period itself cannot begin until any other sentence being served is completed (a so-called “contingent” case under G.S. 15A-1346(a), described here). Or it could mean that the suspended sentence must be set to run consecutively to other sentences being served in the event of activation.

I have already received a number of inquiries, many of them from inmates, about whether the changes to the habitual felon law apply retroactively. The effective date clause in the Justice Reinvestment Act makes pretty clear that the changes apply only to principal (fourth or subsequent) felonies that occur on or after December 1, 2011. S.L. 2011-192, sec. 3.(e). That section goes on to state explicitly that “[p]rosecutions for offenses committed before the effective date of this act are not abated or affected by this act,” making it pretty clear to me that no retroactive application was intended. I am sometimes asked whether the “retroactive application” provision for “significant change[s] in law” in the motion for appropriate relief article (specifically, G.S. 15A-1415(b)(7)) allows a judge to apply the law to someone already convicted and sentenced. For the reasons stated in this prior post, I don’t think it does.