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Criminal Sentences in North Carolina – Part 1


Criminal sentences in North Carolina are determined based on a system called “structured sentencing”.  If you are charged with a crime in North Carolina you need to understand the potential consequences of a conviction.  Today’s post takes a look at some of the concepts that make up criminal sentences in North Carolina, how they work and how they work together to determine the ultimate punishment somebody might receive.  Unfortunately, structured sentencing is somewhat complex.  If you are charged with a crime or need to get specific information about what to expect in an actual case you would need to speak with a criminal defense attorney in greater detail.

Criminal Sentences in North Carolina. Felonies and Misdemeanors

Crimes in North Carolina are categorized as either felonies or misdemeanors.  Misdemeanors are less serious offenses and carry less significant punishments.  Felonies are considered the most serious type of crime you can commit and can carry long-term implications.  Besides being categorized as either a felony or misdemeanor, each criminal offense is given a classification to define how serious it is.

Misdemeanors are classified one of four ways, with class 3 misdemeanors being the least serious and class A1 being the most significant.  Felonies are divided into 10 classifications ranging from Class I (relatively minor offenses such as forgery) to Class A (first-degree murder).  The punishment a person receives is determined by the class of the crime of which they were convicted.

Criminal Sentences in North Carolina. Criminal History

The actual punishment that a person receives upon a criminal conviction is not only determined by the class of the crime but also by the defendant’s prior criminal history.  This criminal history is often referred to as “prior record” or “prior conviction level”.  There is a point system that awards points each time somebody is convicted of a crime.  The number of points awarded depends on the severity of the crime.

Prior record points never go away.  As a person accumulates points they move up from one record level to another.  For felonies, there are six record levels. Level I is for persons with 0-1 points and the maximum is level VI for persons with 18 or more points.  For misdemeanor sentencing, there are three levels.  Level I for people with 0 points, level II for defendants with 1-4 points, and level III for 5 or more points.

The actual sentence a defendant can receive for any given conviction is thus determined by matching up the class of the crime convicted with their prior record level.  That “box” or “block” contains the range of possible punishments that the court can impose.  That means that the block tells the court how much time the defendant can receive and the type(s) of sentence allowed.

Criminal Sentences in North Carolina. Sentencing Ranges

Each sentencing block actually contains three possible sets of sentences.  These are the presumptive range, the aggravated range, and the mitigated range.  The vast majority of cases are sentenced in the presumptive range.  The law sets out a set of special factors that might be present in the case that can cause it to deviate from the presumptive range.  Mitigating factors are ones that tend to show that the crime committed should be treated less severely than other similar cases.  Aggravating factors are ones that show that the case is worse than usual.  Moving from the presumptive range to an aggravated or mitigated range does not change the type of sentence that can be imposed within the sentencing block, but can increase or decrease the amount of the sentence.

Criminal Sentences in North Carolina. Types of Sentences

When a person is convicted of a crime they are sentenced to a period of incarceration based on the class and their record level.  Whether or not they actually serve any time in custody depends on the type of sentence imposed.  There are three types.  An “active” sentence means that the person actually serves the sentence in prison or the local jail (depending on the length of the sentence).  A “community” sentence means that the period of incarceration is suspended and the defendant is put on some sort of probation instead.  Finally, an “intermediate” sentence falls somewhere between the other options.  Usually, that means the defendant serves some of their sentence and then is put on probation, is given house arrest or some other option that is more severe than just regular probation.  The sentencing block that the defendant falls within for their conviction(s) will determine which of these options is possible for their case.

As I said in the beginning, the system can be somewhat complex. In our next discussion on this topic, we are going to look at these general principles with more concrete examples of how courts determine criminal sentences.