State Prisons and County Jails Facing Uncertain Future - Sparrow Law Firm

The headlines in North Carolina are filled with the state’s budget woes. The most recent proposal included serious cuts to public safety programs. Among the targeted areas are state prisons, and legislators are hoping the proposed cuts will dovetail with the bipartisan Justice Reinvestment initiative. Justice Reinvestment is charged with finding new ways to handle offenders, especially men and women convicted of nonviolent crimes like drug possession.

The list making its way through House committees includes a $70 million cut in the state Department of Corrections budget. The reductions would be achieved by, among other things, closing prisons (apparently no specific prisons were named) and eliminating more than 700 jobs.

Some legislators are wary of the proposals, for a few reasons. First, they caution their colleagues to wait for the introduction of the Justice Reinvestment bill. The reforms proposed in that bill will likely save the state money, at least in the short term. More on that later.

Another concern is the long-term impact of making some of these cuts. If passed, this new corrections budget would eliminate the drug courts and close the prison system’s sole substance abuse treatment program for women. The expense is gone from one column, but, even setting aside the human cost of terminating those programs, these offenders will likely end up back in the prison system, which will cost taxpayers more.

Counties objected to some changes proposed by the Justice Reinvestment initiative. One in particular was met with skepticism, if not animosity. The recommendation, now incorporated into the Justice Reinvestment bill, is that offenders convicted of misdemeanors or who are sentenced to six months or less will serve out their sentences in county jails.

County officials say the proposal doesn’t make sense from a budgetary perspective — the cost is just shifted from the state to the county, and the taxpayer pays the bill either way. They also expressed some concern that county jails would become overcrowded. A commissioner from the Greensboro area urged state lawmakers to look at ways of decreasing the prison population and finding alternatives to incarceration.

The Justice Reinvestment bill was introduced today. The budget proposals seem to be informal right now. For defendants awaiting sentencing, the picture is less hopeful and more confusing.


News & Observer, “Budget cuts may slice public safety programs,” Michael Biesecker, 04/05/11

MyFox8, “Counties fear jail overcrowding with NC law proposal,” 04/04/11