Crime and Punishment

Preventing crime is the most basic of government functions. It's one in which North Carolina governments have made some important progress recently but still have far to go. From 1991 to 2006, the crime rate in North Carolina fell 22 percent. Despite this recent decline, the crime rate — the number of reported crimes per 100,000 in population — is nearly three times higher (273 percent) than what it was in 1961. In high-crime areas of the state, the goals of education reform or economic development will be difficult to achieve without making more progress in improving safety.

Why the Crime Rate Rose

For much of this past century, state and local officials increasingly favored sentence reduction and lighter punishments over increased incarceration. Even after the state began to address its prison overcrowding problem in the mid-1970s, it failed to make incapacitating criminals a high enough priority.

A 1994 study by the American Legislative Exchange Council found that from 1980 to 1992, the 10 states with the largest increases in their incarceration rates (250 percent) experienced an average eight percent reduction in crime rates. The 10 states with the lowest incarceration rate increases (15 percent) experienced an average 51 percent increase in crime.

In that time, ALEC found, North Carolina was the only state whose overall incarceration rate declined (by six percent). The state’s crime rate rose by 25 percent, the nation’s second-highest increase.

Instead of new cells, North Carolina had pursued alternative punishments (including parole and probation), designed to rehabilitate criminals or simply keep them from the "dehumanizing" state prisons. By 1990 only one-fifth of state convicts were actually serving prison time, and one-third of new prison admittees each year were convicts incarcerated for violating the terms of their alternative punishments.

The 1980s saw two initiatives — making parole more prevalent and the infamous prison cap of '87 — in response to federal lawsuits alleging violation of prisoners' constitutional rights. By 1994 the average sentence for misdemeanants in North Carolina was 23.9 months — but the average time served was 1.4 months (about six percent of the sentence). For felons, the average sentence was 8.8 years, but the average time served was 8.1 months (about eight percent). In the 10 years from 1985 to 1994, the number of prisoners paroled ballooned from 48.7 percent of imprisoned convicts to 83.4 percent.

In 1994 Gov. Jim Hunt called a special legislative session on crime, and the General Assembly responded by enacting "Structured Sentencing," touted as the solution to the state's crime problem. It was to increase time served, both to incapacitate criminals and deter others from becoming criminals. The result was a decline in reported crimes.

The new laws increased time served by violent offenders by doing away with parole. Unfortunately, the laws actually decreased sentence lengths for some nonviolent crimes, ignoring that career criminals often start with petty crimes, then go to more serious offenses.

Incarceration and Beyond

Still, building additional prisons and lengthening sentences have resulted in lower crime rates (see chart below). Local policies also helped. Many cities have deployed additional police officers and used innovative "community policing" techniques to discourage petty crimes and build community trust.

They also yield positive economic returns for the community. A 1996 paper by North Carolina State University economist Dr. Mike Walden, written for the John Locke Foundation, found that investing tax dollars in public safety generated far stronger economic returns than government expenditures on even public education or highways (all other public expenditures drew negative economic returns, by the way).

Local economies grow new businesses and opportunities faster where insurance costs aren't sky-high and people aren't afraid to shop, work, and live. To maintain these positive trends, North Carolina must continue to expand prison capacity as quickly and efficiently as possible so that more criminals can receive just (that is, longer) sentences. This need not be a budgetary burden, if inmate labor is used and larger, more cost-effective prisons are built.

Privately built and operated prisons also can provide significant cost savings. One study found that privately operated prisons cost 35 percent less than publicly operated ones, while actually providing higher quality services in many areas.

A significant concern is North Carolina's judicial system, which is inadequately positioned to address the state's law and order needs. Clogged courts, outdated technology, and overworked and undervalued personnel mark our judicial system. The state simply must reallocate more resources to its primary responsibility to the people. Combined with lax treatment of beginning criminals, the system fosters an "untouchable" mentality in offenders that stirs them on to greater, more violent crimes.

We must also focus on preventing crime by addressing the conditions that give rise to it. But that does not mean increasing government spending on jobs programs or social programs. The real cause of crime is not a poverty of resources but a poverty of values. Research has clearly documented a relationship between out-of-wedlock births and the likelihood that those children will grow up to be criminals. A successful crime-prevention strategy will therefore include welfare reform and other measures to reduce government dependency and illegitimacy.

State leaders should also prevent new opportunities for crime by resisting Smart Growth initiatives and other "New Urbanist" planning mandates that force people to live in crowded, dense areas and "open" established neighborhoods with more streets, alleys, and bike and foot paths. As economist Randal O'Toole and Stephen Brown, co-author of Design Against Crime: Guidance for the Design of Residential Areas, show in a February 2005 Reason article, these initiatives lead to increases in crime. Densely packed living areas lead to greater crime, as do increasing access into (and "escape paths" out of) private neighborhoods. Along those lines, the U.S. Justice Department recently published a report titled, sufficiently, "Closing Streets and Alleys to Reduce Crime."

Brown and O'Toole argue in favor of Defensible Space planning, pioneered by architect Oscar Newman with support from the National Science Foundation. Defensible Space planning recognizes that "the safest neighborhoods maximized private space and minimized common zones."


1. State leaders need to devise a comprehensive plan for identifying and incapacitating the career criminals who commit a disproportionate share of crime in North Carolina. The state needs to build enough prison space to lengthen sentences for serious crimes, but should use prison labor, larger regional prisons, and privatization where appropriate to reduce the cost to taxpayers.

2. Local leaders should employ community policing, volunteers, and other ways to deter criminal activity in their communities, including measures to reduce government dependency and the consequent poverty of values that lead to criminal behavior.

3. State and local officials should reallocate more resources to fixing the problems plaguing the judicial system.

4. Local leaders should pay heed to Defensible Space principles of neighborhoods maximizing private space and minimizing common zones instead of putting their communities under crime-inviting Smart Growth mandates.