Habitual Felon in the News

The second most interesting news story of the past couple of days is a New York Times piece about the looming demise of some of the nation’s biggest law firms. Wait, you mean the business model of paying brand-new law school graduates $160,000 per year to review documents isn’t working?

But the most interesting news story is a News and Observer piece about the habitual felon law, G.S. 14-7.1 et seq. (It ran along with several sidebar pieces, all of which can be found on the News and Observer’s website.) The gist of the article is that the law is very expensive, because it results in long prison terms, and that it doesn’t decrease crime. The full extent of the argument on the latter point is that the crime rate in two counties where the habitual felon law is used frequently hasn’t dropped as much as the crime rate in two counties where the law is used infrequently. The story ignores all the confounding variables that impact crime rates and doesn’t quote a single expert or cite a single study endorsing its conclusion. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the conclusion is wrong, but the story doesn’t provide much reason to accept it.

One interesting tidbit from the News and Observer story is its report that, last month, “law enforcement officials packed a House committee meeting to oppose any change in the law.” That appears to be a reference to HB 1360, which would change the law in three significant ways: (1) it would require that the three previous felonies that make a defendant a habitual felon be Class G or higher, (2) it would require that the substantive felony to which the habitual felon indictment attaches be Class G or higher, and (3) it would result in a sentence one class higher than the substantive felony would otherwise entail, instead of calling for a Class C sentence in all cases. Although the bill passed the Judiciary III committee, it appears to have stalled after a hearing in Ways and Means, presumably the one referenced in the story. Anyone know anything more about that?

I’m familiar with the legal issues concerning the habitual felon law, which I summarized in a sort of user’s guide to the law, available as a free download, but I’d welcome people’s thoughts about some of the policy issues raised in the News and Observer story, as well as experiences from the field with the law’s application.