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Former N.C. Chief Justice Suggests Decriminalizing Drugs

Posted November 14, 2005

— North Carolina should consider decriminalizing illegal drugs as it tries to stem the need for additional prisons, a former state Supreme Court chief justice said Monday.

Burley Mitchell, the state's top judge from 1995 to 1999, said the war on drugs in North Carolina and nationwide has been "a total failure" that has filled up prisons. The money saved if police no longer made arrests and courts no longer handed out sentences could be used to treat drug addicts, he said.

"What if we decriminalized drugs? Then you'd knock out all of the profits of every dealer and more to the point, the big producers," Mitchell said at a Raleigh luncheon crowd interested in prison reform. Drug demand also would go down due to lower supplies, and drug-related crimes such as robbery and murder also would fall, he said.

While many people oppose the idea, Mitchell said: "I think it's something that needs to be considered."

Even with another 3,000 beds set to come online by 2008, including 2,000 next year in Greene and Bertie counties, officials predict that the Correction Department will remain about 1,000 short of its predicted prison population.

State prisons already are feeling the pinch by paying county jails to keep 278 convicted criminals until space is available, department spokeswoman Pam Walker said in an interview. There were 36,978 prisoners as of Monday.

Even with double-bunking, the shortfall could reach nearly 2,900 beds in 2010 and 6,500 in 2014, when the projected prison population is 45,312, according to the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission.

"The state of North Carolina can't build prisons fast enough," said Chris Fitzsimon with NC Policy Watch, which co-sponsored the event.

Former House Speaker Dan Blue, another luncheon speaker, helped pass a new prison sentencing system that in 1994 eliminated parole and required judges to impose penalties based on a sentencing grid of minimum and maximum sentences.

Blue, D-Wake, said he doesn't understand why the General Assembly hasn't strongly considered commission recommendations in recent years that would result in slightly shorter mandatory sentences for convicted felons _ thereby reducing the overall prison population.

Some legislators argue the changes would lead to a slippery slope toward the elimination of "structured sentencing." But Blue says the recommendations "really are logical" because they would save the state the costs of building new prisons.

The North Carolina chapter of Families Against Mandatory Minimums said commission recommendations would eliminate the need for nearly 4,600 prison beds.

FAMM also wants changed North Carolina's habitual felon law, which requires longer punishments for multiple offenders, saying many of those offenders have drug problems and mental illness that could be better served with medical treatment.

As of Sept. 30, 4,441 prisoners, or about 12 percent of North Carolina's prison population, were considered habitual felons, Walker said. Nearly 5,400 prisoners were serving sentences for drug offenses.

FAMM director LaFonda Jones said more than 70 percent of the habitual felons are black, a percentage reflecting the disproportionate number of black inmates in the prison system.

North Carolina faced a more severe prison crisis in the 1980s when several inmates sued over living conditions behind bars. The state imposed a cap on prisoners while it built at least 15 new prisons to meet minimum space requirements, thanks in part to a prison bond referendum narrowly approved by voters.

But speakers at the forum said the state will be hard pressed to keep raising taxes or borrowing money to build new prisons.

"Somebody's going to have pay for it sometime the road," Mitchell said.

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