North Carolina legislative leaders are budgeting for a smaller prison population. The budget agreement that the Senate and House are voting on this week would close five prisons.
North Carolina Director of Prisons George Solomon said it makes sense to close five prisons – there's plenty of room elsewhere.
"We have been running in excess somewhere in the neighborhood of about 1,500 vacant beds for the last couple years since our population has declined," Solomon said.
The state's prison population hovered around 41,000 inmates from 2009 to 2011. But now it's down to about 37,000. Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety Tim Moose cites two reasons for the decline: crime rates dropping in a lot of categories "and I think the other part to that is tied to the Justice Reinvestment Act of the last couple years."
The Justice Reinvestment Act of 2011 shifts some lower-level offenders from state prisons to county jails. That's actually OK with many of the sheriffs who run those jails. Eddie Caldwell is executive vice president of the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association.
"We've had sufficient availability of beds and do not anticipate any shortage," Caldwell said.
He said the state reimburses counties for the extra inmates, so the change hasn't cost local sheriff's offices much, if anything. (The Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office, for example, says it has not had any additional costs.)
The Justice Reinvestment Act also allows some inmates to get off earlier but with increased supervision. For that reason, the state is adding probation officers. The budget agreement includes 175 new ones.
The prisons that would close are in Burke, Duplin, Robeson, Bladen, and Wayne counties. The Department of Public Safety says they're older prisons with maintenance issues.