North Carolina is cutting one state budget line by millions of dollars and, for once, almost everyone is happy about it.
Both chambers propose millions in cuts to the state’s prison system because the inmate population has fallen dramatically in recent years. One reason is a drop in the crime rate. Another is demographic: The number of males aged 16-24, the age group most likely to get into trouble with the law, is dropping.
But many observers consider a piece of legislation passed during the last legislative ses-sion, The Justice Reinvestment Act, as the biggest reason, The News & Observer report-ed. The bipartisan bill – yes, bipartisanship occasionally occurs in this state – was an out-growth of years of study by people who come to the prison population question from var-ious angles.
Some thought our sentences too harsh and unfair. Others feared that the costs were get-ting out of hand or that sentences were straining our prison capacity and would lead to more intervention by the federal courts, as we faced in the 1980s. Others saw the profes-sional criminal class growing.
Former Rep. David Guice (now N.C. commissioner of adult corrections) pushed a com-prehensive bill through the legislature and the prison population began falling immediate-ly, now down by almost 5,000 inmates. Instead of sending many of those convicted to prison, the most expensive alternative, the state began sending some to jails, where the state’s $40 a day stipend to counties saves money and helps counties efficiently use their jail space.
The new law expanded diversion options at sentencing, more probation under strict controls being the most likely.
But the act’s future success depends mightily on the current legislature following through on its spending element. The corrections budget needs some of the savings to hire more probation and parole officers, drug counselors and professionals to provide other services. All are necessary to keep the recidivism rate down.
Gov. Pat McCrory wants $20 million of the savings for those purposes. Legislators should provide it and congratulate themselves on their good legislation from last session.