Sensible tougher penalties

Jun. 23, 2014 @ 05:17 PM

We’re often leery when lawmakers begin talking about being tougher on crime. Too often, that discussion has involved scoring cheap political points and over-reacting to perceived threats.  Witness, for example, the pipeline to prison that has been facilitated by overly tough drug laws that lock people up for long periods – most frequently young men of color – for relatively minor offenses. 

But several proposals to tweak some North Carolina laws with stiffer penalties make sense.  At the same time, it’s worrisome that a broadly supported effort to raise the age at which teenagers are tried as adults instead of juveniles seems to have stalled after bipartisan approval in the state House.

The tougher penalties would, as such changes inevitably mean, put more people into state prisons. That’s not the burden it might be since, providentially, lower crime rates have actually resulted in empty prison beds.  And many misdemeanor convictions now land the defendant in county jail, not state prison.

One especially reasonable set of tougher penalties involves cellphones in prisons, which seem to be alarmingly prevalent although it is illegal to pass a cellphone to an inmate and against prison rules for an inmate to possess one.

The tougher penalties for both the provider and the inmate are an outgrowth of a nearly tragic incident involving a Wake County assistant district attorney. A gang member she had prosecuted plotted from prison, by cellphone, for other gang members to kidnap her. They missed the mark and kidnapped her father, and while he was eventually freed by law enforcement officers the incident raised understandable alarm over the cellphone issue. 

In other states, inmates have used contraband cellphones to enlist confederates to help them escape, sometimes (briefly) successfully.

Cracking down on smuggling cellphones into cells seems a better response to the Wake County incident than restricting the public’s access to property records, as also has been proposed.

Legislation citied in an Associated Press story Monday would also stiffen penalties for ex-convicts possessing a gun and for threatening public officials.

The juvenile crime legislation – called “Raising the Age” by its supporters – cleared the house May 21 by a vote of 77-39. But it has been stalled in the state Senate since without so much as being referred to a committee.  It’s not clear why the delay has occurred.

The bill would put 16- and 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system for most crimes, rather than trying them as adults and sending them into the prison system if convicted.

As raisetheagenc.com puts it, “Adult jails can turn kids into career criminals, with tax payers footing the bill. By Raising the Age of how we punish and straighten out kids who make minor mistakes, we'll keep … our communities safer, our kids on the right track, our tax dollars working toward common sense solutions rather than perpetuating problems.”

The Senate should pass the House bill before the short session ends in a matter of weeks.