Albuquerque Journal

Computer Program Monitors Prison Needs

North Carolina legislators can't introduce prison bills without providing cost analysis

By Carla Crowder, Journal Capitol Bureau

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Every time legislators in North Carolina decide they want to get tough on one crime or another, they first have to trek down into the basement of the Court of Appeals building. That's where Robin Lubitz is plugging away on a computer program that forecasts how many prison beds the state needs for every change in criminal sentences.

"Before, bills were passed without consideration fiscally. The expectation was the system was a giant sponge that would accept whatever you gave it," said Lubitz, executive director of the state's sentencing commission that overhauled North Carolina's sentencing laws in 1993.

Here's how the computer program works: Because of the 1993 changes, judges' discretion in handing down punishments is limited to a range of months listed in a grid, or chart. Parole and so-called "good time" have been wiped out.

So Lubitz can tell how long each category of criminal is going to spend in a prison bed. From there, he can figure out how much money the General Assembly needs to add or subtract from the Department of Correction
budget for prison beds.

Tom Keith, district attorney in Winston-Salem, said he believes access to this kind of information is good for lawmakers "because every time they get tough on crime, whammo, they need money."

In North Carolina, a legislator can introduce a bill that strengthens penalties, but the General Assembly's committees cannot take up the bill without the cost analysis, Lubitz said.

It takes him about a half-hour to figure the number of new beds needed for each proposed law change. The computer program was developed by the Institute for Rational Public Policy out of Minnesota with funding through the JusticeDepartment. Lubitz said North Carolina has shared the program free of charge with other states.

"The model is really quite simple. The problem is getting the data to feed into the model," Lubitz said. The state spent about two years gathering prison-population and crime statistics to develop its database. "What this has done is put Corrections on the table at the same time the other areas of the state budget are on the table," said Superior Court Judge Tom Ross of Greensboro.

"If you change the law and increase punishments for sale of cocaine or whatever, then I can tell you how many beds you'll need in 2003 to accomplish that or 2006 or whenever it occurs. So (lawmakers) can now plan; that's something we could never do before," Ross said. North Carolina still has had to nearly double its prison capacity to deal with massive overcrowding and excessive early release programs of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But officials say the computer forecasting model can keep them from getting into that pinch again.

Recently, crime rates have stabilized in North Carolina, and prison admissions are leveling off, leaving some of the new beds open. This is important in ensuring offenders on probation or another alternative punishment "that if they fail, we've got a bed waiting for them," Lubitz said.

Copyright © 1997 Albuquerque Journal

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Albuquerque Journal