Prosecutors focus on habitual felons, while lawmakers want lighter sentences

By Sharon Smith - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Convicted felon James Jacobs is a perfect example of why the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office is trying to get a handle on repeat offenders.

Jacobs has 46 convictions on his record including armed robberies, stealing and drugs. His latest escapade, considered by most to be a petty crime, was breaking into a CMPD bait car.

As a regular offender, Jacobs could have been sentenced to 12 months in prison. Under the current habitual felon law, Jacobs received a maximum punishment of 201 months.

"The goal is to put the right people in jail for a long time," said Assistant District Attorney Bryan Crocker. He's part of the DA's new habitual felon team.

The team consists of four attorneys dedicated to screening and prosecuting repeat offenders facing drug and property charges.

Crocker says they will streamline the process, reduce caseload, and be able to dig into the cases better. The team will have roundtable discussions on each offender and have to agree on how to proceed with a plea deal.

Crocker says the new approach will create consistency, too.

There is a lot at stake. When defendants face more prison time, many will choose a jury trial over a plea deal. That means more time, money, and risk.

"Anytime you take a case into court and take it to the jury, you add a certain element of uncertainty to it," said Crocker.

Earlier this month, one habitual offender case ended with a hung jury. However, Crocker says the payoff is worth it.

Their efforts could be derailed by lawmakers in Raleigh. Several democrats are sponsoring a bill to reduce sentences for habitual felons.

For example, an offender like James Jacobs, who was just sentenced to 201 months in prison, would be sentenced to 24 months max under the proposed change.

"I think it would be a devastating blow to us," said Crocker. He says rewriting the law takes away their bargaining power in the courtroom.

However, several state representatives, like Pricey Harrison from Guilford County see no way around it.

"We've got an overcrowding problem and we obviously have a budget problem right now....we want to make sure we have room in the prisons for the folks who are creating the greater offenses," said Harrison.

The prisons are over-populated. The North Carolina Department of Corrections reports housing 41,000 inmates living in facilities built to hold 34,000.

At a cost of $33,000 per inmate, per year -- the tab gets getting higher. There's also talk of closing eight small prisons because of budget concerns.

Harrison says harsh sentences don't help the drug addicted or mentally ill. They need more rehab.

Crocker says that's why they screen cases and use the habitual felon status only for those offenders who put the community at real risk.

"The goal is to put the right people in jail for a long time." he said.