RALEIGH – U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis is trying to push through criminal justice reforms in Congress modeled on measures he helped shepherd through the North Carolina General Assembly when he was speaker of the House.
Tillis, a first-term North Carolina Republican, is hoping that the federal government will adopt strategies contained in the 2011 Justice Reinvestment Act in North Carolina
“It’s a money saver in the justice system that can be redeployed to making communities safer,” Tillis said.
The bipartisan federal Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act includes several concepts that were inspired by North Carolina’s criminal justice reforms. It would reduce prison sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders while increasing prison terms for violent criminals and adding two new mandatory minimum sentences. The legislation also seeks to reduce the number of repeat offenders by expanding education, job training, drug rehabilitation, and faith-based programs.
In 2014, the Council of State Governments Justice Center released a study showing the benefits the state gained through the judicial reform measures.
The study showed that the state saved $48 million in the 2013-14 budget year. The reforms also allowed the state to close 10 prisons. In addition, with fewer inmates behind bars, the costs of the criminal justice system dropped by $500 million, easing the need for the construction and operation of new prisons.
The prison population dropped by 8 percent, or nearly 3,400 people, the study showed. In addition, overall prison admissions dropped by 21 percent because fewer people were convicted of misdemeanors and there were fewer probation revocations.
North Carolina probation officers now have more leeway to respond to probation violations swiftly. Previously, officers had to request a court hearing before they could conditions after violations by offenders.
The reforms gave probation officers more time and tools to supervise felons being released from prison and required felons to have more supervision upon their release from prison.
The Council of State Governments study showed that 85 percent of people leaving prison who had been convicted of felony offenses left prison without any supervision. The North Carolina reforms require every person with a felony conviction to receive nine or 12 months of post-release supervision.
Tillis said he expects that the changes, if adopted, will pay off for federal taxpayers as well. The proposal, part of an overall sentencing reform bill, has cleared committee. He hopes it will be brought before the full Senate during the first quarter of 2016.
Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.