Understanding the Criminal Court System
Sentencing in North Carolina
Attention: In June 2011, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation that substantially alters sentencing law in North Carolina. These are the first substantial changes since 2009 (see below). These changes take effect for offenses committed on or after December 1, 2011. Among other things, House Bill 642 requires shorter sentences for those convicted under North Carolina's habitual felon law. To view a synopsis and/or the entire legislation, follow these links:
House Bill 642 (on NCGA website)
Attention: In August 2009, the North Carolina General Assembly passed 2 laws that significantly impact felony sentencing by reducing sentences and changing the number of points required for offenders to attain certain "prior record levels." These changes take effect for offenses committed on or after December 1, 2009. To view both pieces of legislation, follow these links:
Senate Bill 489 (on NCGA website)
Senate Bill 488 (on NCGA website)
As an example of how these two laws work to reduce sentences, a defendant convicted of a felony and of being a habitual felon, with 9 prior record level points, was previously eligible for a maximum possible sentence of 167-210 months in prison. Under the new sentencing laws passed in 2009 by the NC General Assembly, the same defendant is only eligible for a maximum possible sentence of 120-153 months (approximately 4 to 5 years less).
Current sentencing guidelines in North Carolina were created by the Structured Sentencing Act of 1994 (and amended substantially, as noted above, in 2009 and 2011). A few offenses, most notably including driving while impaired, are not covered by the Structured Sentencing Act, rather by other statutes. Prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys regularly refer to the sentencing system in N.C. as "structured sentencing." Under structured sentencing, a formula is applied to arrive at a place on a "grid" so that everyone involved (judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and defendant) will know the possible range of punishment the defendant faces if convicted. The formula involves analyzing the defendant's prior record and assigning "points" for prior convictions. This total number of points, once computed as outlined in the statute, informs all parties of the defendant's prior record level (PRL). Each criminal offense is classified as well. If one knows the defendant's PRL and the classification of the criminal offense for which they may be convicted, one knows the possible range of punishment the defendant faces.
Structured sentencing is very complex. There are both statutes and caselaw that control its application. It is explained in detail on a section of the nccourts.org website; we encourage you to visit that site by clicking here.
If you disagree with the law regarding sentencing, you may wish to contact the state legislature (North Carolina General Assembly). The DA's Office, Mecklenburg County government, and local city/town governments do not make the sentencing laws.
Once you've read the material and reviewed the sentencing charts, you may wish to examine the following examples of how sentencing laws in North Carolina would be applied. These examples illustrate how structured sentencing may sometimes result in a sentence that is inconsistent with the expectation of most citizens.
Defendant is currently charged with a Class I felony (such as possession of cocaine or breaking or entering into a motor vehicle).
Defendant has the following convictions:
-carrying a concealed gun, convicted 1/3/99
-armed robbery, convicted 2/2/99
-resisting a public officer, convicted 12/12/03
-assault with a deadly weapon, convicted 11/15/04
-2nd degree trespassing, convicted 2/15/05
-driving while license revoked, convicted 5/25/05
-simple assault, convicted 9/25/05
-resisting a public officer and reckless driving, convicted 7/14/06
-misdemeanor possession of marijuana <1/2 ounce + possession of drug paraphernalia + assault on a female + communicating threats, all charges arising from the same incident, convicted
-resisting a public officer, convicted 10/31/07
-shoplifting, convicted 12/31/07
In Example #1, under NC sentencing law, the defendant must be placed on probation. The defendant's new offense is a Class I felony and his PRL based on the above convictions is PRL III. Thus, while the DA's Office has convicted the defendant of fifteen (15) crimes, sixteen (16) counting the current felony, the defendant cannot be given an active prison sentence pursuant to NC law.
Defendant is currently charged with a class E felony (such as assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill or assault with a firearm on a law enforcement officer).
Defendant has the following convictions:
-driving while license revoked, convicted 10/1/01
-false report to police officer, convicted 4/12/02
-possession of a handgun by a minor, convicted 5/31/02
-breaking or entering into a residence and felony larceny, convicted 6/10/02
-driving while license revoked, convicted 9/2/04
-injury to personal property <$200, convicted 2/15/05
-harrassing phone calls, convicted 7/28/06
-reckless driving and resisting a public officer, convicted 3/2/07
-assault on a child less than 12 years old + communicating threats + violations of a domestic violence restraining order, convicted 8/11/07
-disorderly conduct, convicted 11/11/07
-simple assault + larceny <$1000 + unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, convicted 5/2/08
-reckless driving + driving while license revoked, convicted 8/19/08
-possession of cocaine, convicted 12/15/09
In Example #2, under NC sentencing law, the defendant may be placed on probation. The defendant's new offense is a Class E felony and his PRL based on the above convictions is PRL II. The minimum sentence a judge could give the defendant would be 17-30 months, suspended (means defendant does not serve any prison time unless later found in violation of probation), with a probationary term of 18 months. The absolute maximum sentence a judge could give the defendant would be 36-53 months in prison.