All Good Things Must Come to an End by Blue LLP

Posted on 18 Jan 2012

All Good Things Must Come to an End

North Carolina lawmakers strike a blow to sentencing reform as announced in US v. Simmons.

Last summer, we wrote about the Fourth Circuit’s move towards requiring a more individualized assessment of each criminal defendant when imposing punishment in federal court. The case, United States v. Simmons, focused on the interpretation of North Carolina’s structured sentencing system within the context of determining whether a federal defendant had a prior drug-related conviction that was “punishable by imprisonment for more than one year[.]” Prior to Simmons, if a federal defendant had prior drug convictions for which any defendant hypothetically could have been imprisoned for more than one year – even if such a punishment was impossible for that particular defendant – the defendant was eligible for enhanced punishment.  And by enhanced, we don’t mean a few extra days or months; federal sentencing enhancements can mean years or even life in prison.  But, in Simmons, the Fourth Circuit imparted its voice of reason by laying out a new standard, requiring that the defendant in front of the sentencing judge must have faced a possible sentence of over one year in state court for a prior drug offense in order for that conviction to be used for an enhanced sentence.  In short, the sentencing court now has to assess each individual’s criminal history instead of referring to a hypothetical defendant with the worst possible record.
Well folks, it looks like we are back to where we started. The recently enacted N.C. Justice Reinvestment Act, which makes sweeping changes to the criminal justice system in this state, has effectively undone headway made by Simmons. The Act modifies the felony sentencing grid, which determines the range of punishment that a defendant in state court is eligible to receive based on the offense class and his or her prior record level. Based on the new grid, the lowest possible range for a term of imprisonment for a felony has gone from 3 to 4 months to 3 to 13 months. That means that a defendant who is convicted of the least serious class of felony (Class I) with no prior convictions is eligible for a sentence of 13 months’ imprisonment, which is conveniently just over one year.  In other words, any felony drug offense in North Carolina is now “punishable by imprisonment for more than one year.” Like we said, all good things must come to an end.