- Associated Press - Sunday, June 22, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina lawmakers this year are once again grappling with how to balance being tough on crime while holding down expenses.

For a change, the debate is happening during a period of less crime and need for prison space.

The House is moving along legislation that in part would raise penalties for ex-convicts who possess a gun, for slipping cellphones to prisoners and for threatening government officials. Prisoners caught with cellphones also would be charged with a crime for the first time.

Lawmakers and other elected leaders generally back these changes, although they could cost millions of dollars and potentially require hundreds of additional prison beds over time.

Support for the bill comes in response to the April kidnapping of the father of a Wake County assistant district attorney who had prosecuted a gang member. Authorities say the prisoner called the shots behind bars with his illegal cellphone to get other gang members to locate her. They found her father instead. An FBI rescue team located him days later in Atlanta.

“State officials should be able to fulfill their duties without fearing for their family’s safety,” Gov. Pat McCrory said last month while proposing the higher penalties.

A member of the General Assembly’s nonpartisan staff told a House Judiciary Committee last week raising the gun possession crime for ex-felons by one level on the felony punishment grid could require the use of 453 additional prison beds. That’s because they’ll remain in state prisons longer as other offenders enter the system.

A new felony also would be created if a prisoner possesses a cellphone, which is already barred in prison with punishments handled internally. The Department of Public Safety said 320 inmates received infractions in 2013 on their records for possessing a cellphone. The new maximum sentence would be roughly two years.

Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, the bill’s manager in the House, said court and prison expenses must be weighed against deterrence. “Is that cost worth the rate of return if it does in fact work and prevent people from committing the crimes in the first place?”

The state has some wiggle room when it comes to prison beds compared to two decades ago, when waves of tough-on-crime legislation led to bed shortages and an expensive prison building boom. Lower crime rates and the 2011 Justice Reinvestment Act, which shipped people convicted of misdemeanors to county jails and focused on intensive probation, have resulted in a prison population decline.

The number of prisoners fell to about 37,000 this past January, almost 5,000 less compared with population’s recent peak in October 2009, according to the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission. Several prisons have closed in recent years, and there are currently enough beds to avoid crowding.

The same bill also creates more felony crimes unrelated to the kidnapping.

The measure would make it a mid-grade felony to illegally operate an amusement ride that leads to serious injury or death. The provision is a response to a N.C. State Fair ride last fall that injured five people. A person spraying graffiti also could face a felony if the damage exceeds $1,000 or the person is a repeat offender.

Another provision makes it a felony - not the current misdemeanor - to take a Venus flytrap, which is native to southeastern North Carolina. Davis said local conservation groups asked for the felony charge - much like similar bans on the books for taking ginseng or pine straw - after a large flytrap theft.

Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he’s anxious about increasing penalties too rashly. The bill is going to the House budget panel, possibly this week, for further review.

“I’m concerned about having enough beds and what it will do to the budget,” Daughtry said.

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