Counting the Cost of Sentencing in North Carolina, 1980-2000

104 Pages Posted: 19 Oct 2001

See all articles by Ronald F. Wright

Ronald F. Wright

Wake Forest University - School of Law

Date Written: September 14, 2001


This paper offers a case study in the development of sentencing policy in a politically moderate state during times of rapid growth in the prison system. This study reveals the mechanisms for sharing ideas among jurisdictions pursuing similar legal reforms at the same time. It also evaluates the power of sentencing rules to change actual practices in a complex system, even while leaving little room for judges to influence the direction of sentencing policy.

Changes in sentencing laws in North Carolina over the last twenty years have occurred in two phases. The first phase, under the Fair Sentencing Act of 1979, emphasized the need to reduce disparity in sentences. Because the statute lacked any enforcement mechanism, judges returned to their earlier sentencing practices within five years. During the second phase, embodied in the Structured Sentencing Act of 1993, legislators put concerns about disparity to the side and concentrated instead on changing the state's priorities in the use of prison. The new law increased the length of prison terms for personal injury crimes; in exchange, the sentencing structure assigned more property offenders to non-prison sanctions. The structure also guided judicial choices among "intermediate" and "community" punishments available for lesser crimes. Tight controls on sentencing judges made it possible to plan and finance the corrections resources to match sentencing practices. The overall size and expense of the system overshadowed any debates about the purposes of punishment or about the just distribution of punishments among offenders.

The intended effects of the Structured Sentencing Act took hold during its first five years. Judges did impose longer prison terms for violent crimes, and they sentenced a larger proportion of property felons to intermediate and community sanctions. The longer-term effects of the Act may prove more difficult to manage. Appellate judges have remained uninvolved in sentencing policy; no "common law" of sentencing is developing. Moreover, prosecutors are dismissing and discounting more charges, while at the same time obtaining more serious felony convictions overall. The next few years could prove another crucial transition period for North Carolina sentencing.

Keywords: Criminal sentencing, criminal procedure, crime politics, North Carolina

JEL Classification: K42

Suggested Citation

Wright, Ronald F., Counting the Cost of Sentencing in North Carolina, 1980-2000 (September 14, 2001). Available at SSRN: or

Ronald F. Wright (Contact Author)

Wake Forest University - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States
336-758-5727 (Phone)
336-758-4496 (Fax)

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