RALEIGH, North Carolina — In an era of hyper-partisanship with elected officials worried about being accused as weak on crime, lawmakers got reminded of what looks like on its face a bipartisan success story on criminal justice issues.
The Republican-led General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue approved 3½ years ago wide-ranging legislation designed to address the state's soaring prison population and budget, high recidivism rates and thin behavioral treatment programs for offenders.
According to a new report from a nonprofit group that helped lawmakers facilitate the law's creation, the "Justice Reinvestment Act" is exceeding expectations laid out in 2011.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center told a General Assembly oversight committee on criminal justice matters that the state prison population has declined by 3,400 offenders within three years to under 38,000 inmates, or hundreds below projected levels expected under the law by mid-2017. Ten prisons also have closed, contrasting with a prison building spree in the early 2000s.
Overall, the state is on track to save or avoid $560 million in spending on prisons and other government services by mid-2017 because of the reforms, the report said.
"The way North Carolina did it is truly unique and something to be proud of," Marshall Clement, the center's director of state initiatives, told the panel last week for a three-year update. "You've beaten those projections."
The law requires going forward every convicted felon in prison to receive nine or 12 months of supervised probation after their release. Most felons convicted under the state's punishment scale weren't receiving such supervision. County jails also receive financial incentives to house people convicted of misdemeanors, instead of having them in state prison.
More probation officers have been hired and use more authority over offenders, even putting them in jail quickly for two- or three-day stretches for minor probation violations. It's a second chance and alternative to sending them back to prison.
While more than half of all prison admissions were due to revoked probations in 2011, it's down to one-third today, the report said. And probationers are getting more customized assistance.
"That offender is able to sit down and have a meaningful conversation at length, with no time restraints, to discuss what's happening with them in their lives, to discuss solutions to their problems," said Darius Deese, who works on probation matters in Mecklenburg County. "It is truly, truly innovative and it is truly saving lives."
Committee members from both parties praised probation workers attending the meeting and offered no criticisms. But some outside groups have downplayed the law's effectiveness.
A 2013 report from researchers, including those from the American Civil Liberties Union, suggested the law isn't really reducing mass incarceration. They pointed to provisions shifting misdemeanor offenders to county jails and lengthening breaking-and-entering sentences for repeat offenders as proof reductions aren't sustainable.
More than 20 states now or previously received assistance from the Justice Center and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Group officials first came to North Carolina in 2009, when Democrats were in charge. The state prison population grew by 29 percent from 2000 to 2009 to almost 41,000 inmates, while Correction Department spending grew 68 percent during the same period, the report said.
The center wouldn't accept North Carolina's application for help unless leaders from both parties signed on to the effort. That bipartisanship was key when Republicans took over the legislature in 2011. The final bill received only one "no" vote.
Former Rep. David Guice, R-Transylvania, shepherded the 2011 bill and left the legislature to help implement the law within Perdue's administration. Now adult correction and juvenile justice commissioner, Guice told the panel more funding is needed to help more offenders assimiliate back into society, especially for mental health treatment and transitional housing.
Two confinement centers — designed to provide 90-day treatment for chronic probation violators — are set to open next month. The centers, housed in previously closed prisons, will cost $7.4 million to operate next year, but it's a far cry from the spending during the last decade.
"We were talking about $75 million for a new prison," said Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, an oversight committee member.