What is North Carolina’s Structured Sentencing Scheme?

In the mid-1990s North Carolina created a structured sentencing system for misdemeanors and felonies committed after December 1, 1995.

I recently observed a case where the alleged crime had been committed in 1992, and in that case the defendant was sentenced under the old North Carolina sentencing system.

But for all felonies or misdemeanors alleged to have been committed after December 1, 1995, North Carolina’s Structured Sentencing system applies.  Structured sentencing applies state wide, whether you’re in Cary, Apex, Raleigh, Fuquay Varina, or Asheville: the same rules apply.  Federal crimes are handled by the federal courts under a different (and much more complicated) structured sentencing system.

But most criminal cases are state cases, so let’s talk a little about how North Carolina’s Structured Sentencing system works.

First, crimes are divided into “classes.” Felonies start at Class A (First Degree Murder) which is punishable by life or death and go all the way down to Class I (the least serious, including many minor drug or theft offenses.)  There are two Class B offenses – B1 and B2 that each are treated differently.  Misdemeanors are handled separately, from Class A1 (the most serious, including Assault on a Female) to Class 3 (the least serious, including simple marijuana possession).

Second, individual defendants are assigned to levels.  A Level 1 is someone who has no Class A1 or higher convictions.  A Level 2 is someone who has at least 1 conviction point.  And a Level 6 is someone who has 19 or more prior sentencing points.  Level 6 is the highest, or worst.

Third, each class/level box has three ranges: mitigated, presumptive, or aggravated.  Presumptive is where everyone starts.  If there are mitigating factors – either statutory or common law – the judge may sentence in the mitigated range, which is better.  If there are aggravating factors, the judge may sentence in the aggravated range, which is worse.  If the judge doesn’t find aggravating or mitigating factors to sentence in either of those two ranges, then the presumptive range is used.  Most defendants are sentenced within the presumptive range.   Note that there is also a way for the judge to deviate from the structured sentencing scheme if he finds “extraordinary mitigation”.  This rarely occurs, and usually it is done because the prosecutor agrees that there should be deviation.

Third, this is a truth-in-sentencing system.  If convicted – either by plea or after a trial – the defendant will serve at least the bottom of the sentencing range, and as much as the top of the range.  What happens is that the defendant goes into the DOC and can work off the good time, by cooperating, not getting into fights in prison, being a model prisoner, so that the DOC will grant good time. Over time the good time adds up so that the defendant moves down to the lowest end of the range.

North Carolina has done away with parole.  Life means life.  And and active sentence of 12 to 18 months mean the defendant will serve at least 12 months.

Even if the state’s case is strong, there’s a lot a Apex, Cary, or Raleigh criminal lawyer can do within the structured sentencing scheme to get a lesser sentence.  The criminal lawyer can put together strong evidence that, in spite of the crime, the defendant has been otherwise a good citizen, with a family to support, good contributions to the community, perhaps church involvement, and other kinds of factors relating to the crime that mean the defendant should be given “the bottom end of the mitigated.”

Or, in exceptional circumstances, the Apex, Raleigh or Cary criminal lawyer may be able to argue “extraordinary mitigation.”  This is rare, but possible and depends on putting on strong evidence at a sentencing hearing.

Call (919) 352-9411 to talk to an Apex, Raleigh or Cary criminal lawyer weekdays, evenings, or weekends who can give some advice as to how sentencing might work in your case.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.