Current sentencing laws in North Carolina were created by the Structured Sentencing Act of 1994. (The act was substantially amended in 2009 and 2011.) These laws were created to ensure that offenders convicted of similar offenses with similar criminal records receive consistent sentences across the state. With a few exceptions — most notably driving while impaired and drug trafficking charges — these laws apply to all felony and misdemeanor crimes.
Prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys regularly refer to North Carolina’s sentencing system as “structured sentencing.” Under structured sentencing, defendants’ punishments are determined by the severity of the crime of which they are convicted and by the extent and gravity of their prior criminal record. Those factors are listed on charts that show the type and length of sentences that may be imposed.
To learn a defendant’s sentence upon conviction, one must first determine what is known as the defendant’s prior record level. A formula is applied to analyze the defendant’s criminal record and assign points for previous convictions. This total number of points, which is computed as set out by state law, establishes the defendant's prior record level. Then, one must consult the felony or misdemeanor punishment charts that list prior record levels and the class level of criminal offenses. (In North Carolina, each criminal offense is classified by the N.C. General Assembly. Every felony is classified as Class A, B1, B2, C, D, E, F, G, H or I. Every misdemeanor is classified as Class A1, 1, 2 or 3.) The corresponding box on the grid shows the range of punishments the defendant can receive.
If you have concerns about structured sentencing, the District Attorney’s Office encourages you to contact state legislators. Sentencing laws are determined by the N.C. General Assembly, not the DA’s Office, judges, city governments or county governments.
Structured sentencing is very complex, and its application is controlled by both statutes and case law. For more information, please review the Citizen’s Guide to Structured Sentencing provided by the N.C. court system. Once you've read the law in more detail and consulted the sentencing charts, you may wish to examine the following examples that show how sentencing laws in North Carolina must be applied.
The defendant is currently charged with a Class I felony (such as possession of cocaine or breaking or entering into a motor vehicle). The defendant has the following prior convictions:
- Carrying a concealed gun, convicted 1/3/07
- Robbery with a dangerous weapon, convicted 2/2/07
- Resisting a public officer, convicted 12/12/11
- Assault with a deadly weapon, convicted 11/15/12
- Second-degree trespassing, convicted 2/15/13
- Driving while license revoked, convicted 5/25/13
- Simple assault, convicted 9/25/13
- Resisting a public officer and reckless driving, convicted 7/14/14
- Misdemeanor possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, assault on a female and communicating threats (all charges arising from the same incident), convicted 1/1/15
- Resisting a public officer, convicted 10/31/15
- Shoplifting, convicted 12/31/15
In Example 1, under N.C. sentencing law, the defendant must be placed on probation. The defendant's new offense is a Class I felony, and based on his previous convictions, his prior record level is prior record level III. Thus, while the DA's Office has convicted the defendant of 15 crimes (16 crimes counting the current felony), the defendant cannot be given an active prison sentence pursuant to N.C. law.
The defendant is currently charged with a class E felony (such as assault with a deadly weapon with the intent to kill or assault with a firearm on a law enforcement officer). The defendant has the following prior convictions:
- Driving while license revoked, convicted 10/1/06
- False report to a police officer, convicted 4/12/07
- Possession of a handgun by a minor, convicted 5/31/07
- Breaking or entering into a residence and felony larceny, convicted 6/10/07
- Driving while license revoked, convicted 9/2/09
- Injury to personal property less than $200, convicted 2/15/10
- Harassing phone calls, convicted 7/28/11
- Reckless driving and resisting a public officer, convicted 3/2/12
- Assault on a child less than 12 years old, communicating threats and violations of a domestic violence protective order, convicted 8/11/12
- Disorderly conduct, convicted 11/11/12
- Simple assault, larceny of less than $1,000 and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, convicted 5/2/13
- Reckless driving and driving while license revoked, convicted 8/19/13
- Possession of cocaine, convicted 12/15/14
In Example 2, under N.C. sentencing law, the defendant may be placed on probation. The defendant's new offense is a Class E felony, and based on his previous convictions, his prior record level is prior record level II. The judge has the discretion to place the defendant on probation or to sentence the defendant to an active term of imprisonment. The minimum sentence a judge could give the defendant would be a suspended sentence of 17-33 months in prison with a probationary term of 18 months. (A suspended sentence means the defendant does not serve any prison time unless he/she is later found to be in violation of his/her probation.) The absolute maximum sentence a judge could give the defendant would be 36-56 months in prison.