Spring Break Sentencing Reading List

I was on spring break last week, which meant I had lots of time for uninterrupted reading while my kids entertained themselves at the pool. Okay, maybe not. Despite being on the go, I made time to read three new publications from the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission. They are well worth a look to anyone who reads this blog.

The first publication is the annual Structured Sentencing Statistical Report for Felonies and Misdemeanors (FY 2012/13). I look forward to it each spring in the same way I look forward to pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. Like last year’s report (which I reviewed here), it’s chock full of enough data to keep Bill James busy.

This year’s installment is especially interesting in that it’s the first report for which a majority of the sentences covered (64 percent of felonies and 82 percent of misdemeanors) have offense dates after December 1, 2011, and are thus governed by the post–Justice Reinvestment Act sentencing laws. It’s interesting to see what has changed under the new law, and what hasn’t. For example, the dispositional slash line for felonies (percent Active/Intermediate/Community) is 39/32/29, which is somewhat of a departure from last year’s 41/41/18. Some people (including me, to be honest) had thought the percentage of Active sentences might increase in light of the substantial limits on judges’ authority to revoke probation, on the theory that judges might be less inclined to put some defendants on probation if they couldn’t get them off probation. But it looks like that didn’t happen.

Other items of note:

  • The sentencing range breakdown (percent presumptive/mitigated/aggravated) was 69/27/4, almost identical to last year’s 68/27/5.
  • 150 sentences were entered under the 2011 habitual breaking and entering law.
  • 463 drug trafficking sentences were entered, a substantial decline from 543 the prior year.
  • The firearm/deadly weapon enhancement set out in G.S. 15A-1340.16A was not used a single time.
  • A high percentage of habitual felon sentences continue to be sentenced in the mitigated range, despite the law’s transition in 2011 from automatic Class C status to a four-class enhancement.
  • 77 sentences included an Advanced Supervised Release (ASR) date, although the report notes that due to recordkeeping limitations in the early part of the data collection period, the actual number of ASR sentences was probably a good bit higher.

There are lots of other interesting data that range from interesting trivia (months with the most and least convictions? August and June, respectively) to source material for effective advocacy (Appendix D, Table 1 breaks down the type of punishment and average sentence length by crime type and offense for the state’s most commonly charged crimes).

The second publication is the Commission’s Correctional Program Evaluation: Offenders Placed on Probation or Released from Prison in FY 2010/11, better known as the annual recidivism report. This year’s report examines the recidivism outcomes of the 57,535 offenders released from prison or placed on probation in fiscal year 2010/11. The report defines recidivism as an arrest, conviction, and incarceration during the two years after being released from prison or placed on probation.

To continue our theme of sentencing sabermetrics, the overall recidivism slash line (percentage arrested/convicted/incarcerated within two years) for all offenders was 40.7/21.3/21.9. Perhaps unsurprisingly, defendants sentenced to probation have slightly lower overall recidivism rates (36.8/18.6/22.2) than those sentenced to prison (48.6/26.6/21.2). Habitual felons had rates (48.1/21.9/26.0) fairly similar to other felons, while sex offenders had substantially lower rates of arrest and conviction than felons in general (27.0/13.9/26.3). Rearrest rates for all offenders have risen over time, climbing from 31.2 percent in 1989 to 40.7 percent in 2010/11, but the report indicates that most of that increase is due to improved documentation technology and a greater number of fingerprinted misdemeanor arrests, rather than an increase in the actual number of arrests themselves.

The recidivism report also included an extended discussion of outcomes for probationers broken down by the risk and need level identified through Probation’s risk-needs assessment (RNA) process (described here). It appears that the RNA is predictive of probationer’s violation, revocation, and recidivism rates, which is good news for those who hope to focus limited correctional resources on those who need them most, based on the results of the RNA.

There’s a natural time lag in recidivism reports—you have to wait for a full two-year reporting period before you can measure the outcomes of a particular cohort of offenders. As a result, this year’s report looks at offenders sentenced under pre-JRA law. The 2016 report, based on a sample of offenders placed on probation or release from prison during FY 2012/13, will be the first to provide a more complete accounting of whether the JRA has met its recidivism reduction goals.

Speaking of Justice Reinvestment, the third and final publication of note is the Justice Reinvestment Act Implementation Evaluation Report. The report, prepared in response to legislative mandate, gives insight into how the JRA is playing out in practice through a combination of data, site visit reports, and a review of JRA-related policy changes made by the court and correctional systems. For example, the report gives a status update on the Department of Public Safety’s Treatment for Effective Community Supervision (TECS) program, the JRA’s answer to the former Criminal Justice Partnership Program (CJPP). As of February, TECS services were available in 88 counties, with service in all 100 counties projected to begin by July 2015. The report also gives an update on the Statewide Misdemeanant Confinement Program, future plans for management of offenders ordered to confinement in response to violation (CRV), use of delegated authority, as well as various changes in prosecutorial and plea negotiation practice under the revised habitual felon law, the new habitual breaking and entering law, ASR, and G.S. 90-96. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, I recommend reviewing the Conclusions section beginning on page 47.