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April 14, 2004 - The Charlotte Observer (NC)

Families Press For Sentencing Reform

Group Says Changes Could Save Money, Reduce Need for Prisons

By Emery P. Dalesio, Associated Press

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK - From age 14, Hayne and Patricia Plattenburg's daughter used drugs and skipped school. The Waxhaw couple put Jennifer into a treatment program, but she graduated to crack cocaine and forged checks for the cash to support her habit.

When Jennifer Bigham tried for a fourth time to pass a fake check, prosecutors last year charged her as a habitual felon, under a law that brings stiff mandatory sentences.

The Plattenburgs' daughter, 25, is now serving up to almost eight years in prison -- a term longer than some kidnappers receive.

"She wasn't there for what she did. She was given time because of a mandatory law," Patricia Plattenburg said Tuesday. "Jennifer is a good girl who had developed a bad drug addiction."

The Plattenburgs don't dispute that their daughter should be punished, but they believe her sentence is out of proportion to her crimes -- a view shared by advocates for sentencing reform who met Tuesday.

Reform advocates believe the cash-strapped state should not spend hundreds of millions of dollars building more prisons to accommodate a growing population of inmates, but should tweak the laws to save money, still ensuring that violent criminals remain locked up for a long time.

The N.C. chapter of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and other groups are backing reforms proposed by a state panel that has researched the effect of laws on the prison system.

If enacted, it is estimated that the reforms proposed by the Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission could save the state from having to build at least five new prisons over the next decade.

"Money going into prisons and operating prisons takes money away from education," said state Rep. Beverly Earle, D-Mecklenburg, a member of the House budget-writing committee.

It has been two years since the commission first presented its reforms, but lawmakers have made none of the suggested changes. Last year, they approved plans to build three more prisons for $234 million.

The commission's proposals include cutting the terms for most habitual felons, who are now sentenced in a range reserved for violent crimes. That would put criminals who commit repeated crimes in prison for an average of more than 5 years, rather than the current average sentence of nearly 9 years, advocates said.

The proposals wouldn't change punishment for the 13 percent of crimes by repeat offenders that involve violence, but the remainder that primarily involve drugs, theft or property crimes.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officials last year opposed legislation to change the habitual felon law, which they see as an effective deterrent to crime. Their opposition is likely to continue, said Rep. Joe Kiser, R-Lincoln, a former member of the sentencing commission and former Lincoln County sheriff.

Decisionmakers revised North Carolina's sentencing system a decade ago to ensure violent criminals serve their entire sentence and that misdemeanor crimes didn't result in a prison sentence. But lawmakers knew then that a growing population would probably result in the need to build prisons, he said.

"Structured sentencing was designed to keep people who commit serious crimes and commit crimes often to stay locked up for a long time," said Kiser, who was no longer a member of the sentencing commission when it made its reform proposals. "It's worked beautifully in North Carolina."

Other commission recommendations included cutting three months off the maximum sentence for violent criminals other than murders and adding three months to their post-release supervision. Sentencing reformers plan to hold a large-scale rally two weeks after the General Assembly comes back into session next month.

Kiser said they're likely to meet the same skepticism they did last year.

"I haven't got any feeling that anything has changed. I don't think that anyone wants to be soft on crime, particularly in an election year," he said.

While Kiser said he sympathizes with the Plattenburgs, their daughter is another story.

"I feel sorry for anyone that has to go to prison," he said. "But if you continue to do the crime you have to be able to do the time."

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