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A Criminal Defense Lawyer Explains Felony Classes and Sentences


Felonies are highly structured in North Carolina in terms of their level of severity, and so is the manner of sentencing applied to those convicted of committing one. It sounds simple enough. However, with other factors taken into account, like prior records, mitigating or aggravating factors, and the range of sentences available, it can become a minefield. That’s where an experienced and qualified Criminal Defense Attorney is vitally important for you or a loved one when facing felony charges.

How Structured Sentencing works

The motivation behind the Structured Sentencing Law, first adopted in North Carolina in 1993, and amended several times since then, was to try and get consistency and credibility with regard to sentencing. It was also meant to install priorities regarding the use of correctional resources, so the sentences could be enforced properly.

In terms of the State Law, Felonies are ranked alphabetically from A to I. Class A categorizes the most serious felony offences, and Class I, the least. Class B is split into two separate classes, making a total of 10 different levels in which they are classified.

Sentencing in North Carolina is also structured in terms of the same detailed grid issued by the State. This grid provides a set range of minimum and maximum sentences for each category. However, the system doesn’t stop there. Other factors do have an influence, like the points allotted because of prior records (again split into different levels), and the three-tiered Disposition Ranges grid, which looks at mitigating and aggravating factors. These different grid structures are combined in the ultimate determination of a sentence.

This complex system can be very difficult for the layperson to understand and interpret. A Criminal Defense Attorney is needed in order to understand each factor that can affect the outcome of your case.

The Principles behind Structured Sentencing

The principles behind this structured approach are sound. The system was designed in a way that was believed would mean that sentencing, and the way it was applied, would be rational, unbiased and consistent. A fourth principle with bearing on sentencing is basically a matter of practicality. It sets down that sentencing should also look at logistic viability, bearing in mind the availability of jails and/or prisons, and their capacity and levels of occupancy.

Fitting the crime: The Rational Principle calls for the punishment to fit the crime in terms of the amount of harm done, as well as the defendant’s prior record.

Fitting the sentence: Early parole is not on the cards for anyone convicted of a serious felony in North Carolina. The Truthful Principle is supposed to ensure punishment closely fits the sentence imposed. This means that served time must be as near as possible to sentenced time, to ensure the “truthfulness” of the sentence.

Fitting the pattern: The Consistency Principle supports the idea that those with similar records, who are convicted of the same or similar crime, should get much the same sentence.

A Criminal Defense Attorney will be necessary to assess whether or not these principles help or hinder a defendant’s case, and whether they are adhered to in the course of the sentencing.

Determining Felony Levels

In drawing up the felony and sentencing grids, severity of felonies was based on the victim and the harm done.

Three different types of harm were determined: Physical or mental harm to a person; harm to property, and harm to society as a whole. The latter would include violations such as those impacting public morality, public welfare, and order or governmental or judicial operations. Different levels of the degree of harm are also categorized.

To illustrate the concept, here is a sampling of various crimes and their classification, showing how more or less serious offenses are categorized:

Class A: First Degree Murder

Sentence: Death or life without parole.

Class B1: Rape and various other sex offenses, including statutory rape.

Sentence: 144 months to life without parole.

Class B2: Child Abuse resulting in Serious Bodily Injury

Sentence: 94 to 532 months

Class C: Aggravated assault; kidnapping; Various sex offenses.

Sentence: 44 to 279 months.

Class D: Armed robbery; arson; burglary; voluntary manslaughter.

Sentence: 38 to 252 months.

Class E: Serious child abuse; Discharging a Weapon into Occupied Property.

Sentence: 15 to 136 months.

Class F: Failure to Register as a Sex Offender, Habitual Impaired Driving, Involuntary Manslaughter.

Sentence: 10 to 59 months.

Class G: Common Law Robbery, Firearm by Felon.

Sentence: 8 to 47 months.

Class H: Indecent Exposure, Obtaining Property by False Pretense, Sale of Schedule III-VI controlled substances.

Sentence: 4 to 39 months.

Class I: Possession of cocaine, Forgery.

Sentence: 3 to 24 months.

Determining a Sentence to fit the crime

The judge is bound by certain factors in the North Carolina system in determining which sentence to pass. Prior Record Levels and the Points assigned to the defendant as a result of them are the first factors taken into account.

Three ranges of sentences, called Disposition Ranges, are available to the judge concerning the length of punishment to hand down. Once the points on the convicted felon’s record have been calculated and linked with the felony involved, one of these is selected. The Presumptive Range is the standard, while the Aggravated Range indicates longer sentences because of aggravating circumstances, and the Mitigated Range takes into account extenuating circumstances which could shorten them.

Once the Disposition Range has been determined, and the length of sentence decided, another consideration has to be made. That is on the type of punishment meted out. The most severe is Active punishment or time in prison. The other two, Intermediate punishment and Community punishment, are aimed at mid and lower level felonies. They can involve various different types of punishment, excluding imprisonment but possibly including short and spread out periods of confinement, as well as other options like drug treatment; house arrest or community service while on probation.

A Criminal Defense Attorney is Vital to Your Felony Case

A North Carolina Criminal Defense Attorney is both knowledgeable, and experienced, in that state’s structured sentencing system, and is ready to help those facing a felony charge. Call The Trevor J. Avery Law Firm Attorneys at Law on (910) 405-8459, or contact us online.