RALEIGH — Thousands of misdemeanor offenders will serve their time in local jails instead of a state prison under a change in state law taking effect next week. The change also allows county sheriffs to claim revenue for their lockups by filling empty beds.
The law passed by the General Assembly last summer aims to reduce spending on the state’s nearly 40,000 incarcerated criminals and to redirect the savings into more community-based alternatives that reduce law-breaking.
One of those changes, taking effect in the new year, will see about 4,500 people a year convicted of misdemeanor crimes serving their sentences of between three and six months in county jails instead of prisons.
Offenders sentenced to 90 days or less behind bars will continue to serve their sentences in county jails at local expense. The longer sentences are typical for certain types of assault and some property crimes with a prior criminal record.
All felons now will serve their sentence in state prisons, closing a legal loophole, said Rep. David Guice, R-Transylvania, a former chief parole services manager who shepherded the wide-ranging criminal justice reform package through the General Assembly
“This does enable us to use those prison beds for folks that we know we have to incarcerate,” said Guice, whom Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue named to head North Carolina’s probation system.
Lockups in more than half of the state’s 100 counties have signed up to participate in the voluntary program allowing jails to collect $40 per inmate per day, according to North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association Executive Vice President Eddie Caldwell Jr.
“Our goal will be to assign all inmates in close proximity to the county in which they’re sentenced,” said Caldwell, whose non-profit trade association is using new, state-collected court fees to pay participating jails and the sheriff’s departments that run them.
Until next week, offenders sentenced to less than 90 days active time are sent to county jails while those with 90 days or more serve their sentence in the state prison system. By raising the threshold for a prison stay to 180 days, the state Correction Department is expected to save by cutting space for more than 1,000 inmates, saving more than $33 million a year, legislative fiscal analysts estimated.
The average cost of housing an inmate in a minimum-custody state prison, where misdemeanor offenders are typically sent, is $64.59 a day, the state Correction Department said.
Besides the daily costs, prison staffers wasted time deciding where to send misdemeanor offenders for relatively short sentences, Guice said. By keeping them closer to home, low-level offenders will maintain their connections to their families and communities, making their return to society easier and reducing the chances they’ll commit new crimes, Guice said.
Offenders from every county will be affected by the change if they are sentenced to longer misdemeanor terms for crimes committed starting next week, but not every county’s jail wants to participate in holding them for their sentence. But most counties have lined up to take inmates, collecting a new source of revenue by filling jail beds that would otherwise be empty.
“It only puts inmates in jails that have space,” Caldwell said. Jails across the state will be paid the same rate so that counties don’t bid against each other, Caldwell said.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio