Felony Sentencing in North Carolina
Ever since the North Carolina Structured Sentencing Act went into effect in 1994, judges are required to follow a set of guidelines and standards when sentencing a person for a criminal conviction. This came about when the state was suffering from a growing prison population with limited facilities to house convicts, and the growing concern that prison sentencing was not handled in a manner that was fair or reflected the danger or severity of the crimes committed.
This act applies to most crimes with the exception of first-degree murder, driving while impaired, and drug trafficking, which follow some unique guidelines. Misdemeanors and felonies follow a similar but different set of sentencing guidelines. In this article we go through the process of sentencing for felony crimes.
1. Determine the Offense Class
There are 10 classes of felonies ranging from most severe to least: A, B1, B2, C, D, E, F, G, H and I. Typically, the law defining the felony offense lists what felony class it belongs to, otherwise it is a class I felony. For example, “Assault with a Deadly Weapon with Intent to Kill” is a class E felony. Each felony class has a range of sentencing time and other potential punishments.
As a general rule, conspiracies and attempts are punished as a class below the main offense, and solicitations are two classes below. However, some statutes punish all variants of a crime the same way.
2. Establish Prior Record Level
After the offense class is established from the criminal conviction, criminal history becomes a factor in narrowing the sentencing range and punishments down. Prior convictions contribute a certain number of points based on the crime committed, as shown in the table below:
|Prior Felony Conviction Class or Condition||Points Added to Prior Record Level|
|Classes B2, C, or D||6|
|Classes E, F or G||4|
|Class H or I||2|
|Class A1 or 1 non-traffic misdemeanors, impaired driving and misdemeanor death by vehicle||1|
|If you had a prior offense for the same crime as the current charge||1|
|If the current offense occurred while on probation or parole, or while serving a prison sentence||1|
The above points for every prior conviction a person committed then need to be added all together to place a person in one of six prior record levels, as follows:
- Level I: 0 – 1 points
- Level II: 2- 5 points
- Level III: 6 – 9 points
- Level IV: 10-13 points
- Level V: 14-17 points
- Level VI: 18+ points
The combination of prior record level with the felony class will place the convicted person in a sentencing range indicated in months, but first additional factors must be considered to determine which range fits, as described next.
3. Considering Aggravating and Mitigating Factors
With the exception of Class A felonies which all face either the death penalty or life without parole, a person’s minimum sentencing for their combined prior record level and felony class can fall within one of three ranges:
- Mitigating Range: The lower end of the sentencing range. “Mitigating” factors that reduce the severity of the crime must be present and outweigh other factors to use this range.
- Presumptive Range: The standard range for sentencing. No additional factors need to be considered.
- Aggravating Range: The high-end of the sentencing range, if additional negative factors were present and outweigh any mitigating factors.
For an example of what these sentencing ranges look like, the presumptive ranges table is shown below (ranges in months):
|Prior Record Level|
|Class of Felony||I|
|A||Death penalty or life without parole
(Life with or without parole if defendant was under 18 when the offense occurred)
Sentencing judges are required to consider evidence of both factors, but the decision to use either range is discretionary. Generally, aggravating factors must be proven beyond a reasonably doubt if they are to be considered in sentencing, unless the defendant admits guilt. Likewise, the defendant bears the burden of proof to show that mitigating factors exist.
There are many factors that are considered aggravating or mitigating, which may or may not be applicable depending on the circumstances of the crime. For example, it is generally an aggravating factor when a victim is very young or disabled for crimes that do not specify age or ability. On the other hand, if the defendant was too young, immature or mentally impaired at the time of the offense, this may be a mitigating factor.
How these factors are weighed against each other also involves a great deal of nuance. For example, a case may involve “grossly aggravating factors”, which are so severe that they tend to override the presence of any number of mitigating factors. For a detailed list of aggravating and mitigating factors, you can check out North Carolina’s felony judgement checklist.
4. Determining Maximum Sentencing
While the above factors are used to set a minimum sentencing range, the next step is to set the maximum sentencing possible. There are two general formulas that can be used to calculate maximum sentencing:
- Felonies F through I: [minimum sentence] X 120%, rounded to the next month
- Felonies B1 through E: [minimum sentence] X 120% + 9 months, rounded to the next month
- Felonies B1 through E that require sex offender registration: [minimum sentence] X 120% + 60 months, rounded to the next month
Essentially every maximum sentence is the minimum, multiplied by 1.2 (or 120%), rounded the the next month, with possible additional months. In the case of felonies B1 through E, 9 months are added to allow time for post-release supervision. For B1 through E sex offenses, 60 months are added which correspond to the required 5 year post-release supervision period for sex offenders.
5. Selecting Sentence Disposition
After determining the minimum and maximum range, the sentence disposition must be determined, which fall into the following categories:
- Active Punishment (“A”): A continuous term of imprisonment. The maximum term of this imprisonment could be reduced by earned-time credits, but not below the minimum.
- Intermediate Punishment (“I”): Supervised probation involving at lease one of the following:
- Community service duties
- House arrest with electronic monitoring
- Local confinement for a total of no more than six days per month during any three separate months during the probation period.
- Participation in an education or vocational skills development program
- Submission to satellite-based monitoring (usually for sex offenders)
- Community Punishment (“C”): Unsupervised or supervised probation with no active term of imprisonment
The offense class and prior record level determine whether the defendant is eligible for A, I, or C punishment. All felonies D and above require an active sentence, and only felonies I and H could potentially face community punishment if the defendant has a low prior-record level.
6. Considering Restitution
The final step in felony sentencing is for the judge to determine if the defendant should be required to pay any restitution, or compensation for anything lost, stolen, injured or destroyed. This is ordered in addition to any other punishment imposed, including active sentencing.
Generally, the amount of restitution must be supported by evidence presented at trial or sentencing that demonstrates the damage caused. For example, if the offense involved bodily injury, the judge must consider the cost of medical treatment for the victim, rehabilitation costs, and lost income due to their injury. The court must consider the defendant’s ability to pay, but is not required to make any findings to this determination. Sometimes the court may order a partial