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By Erin Smith

A new initiative has been implemented in the court system in Bladen, Columbus and Brunswick counties and it is helping to ease the burden on the Superior Court System. The system is called H & I Felony Court and is conducted in the Bladen County District Court.

Bladen County Assistant District Attorney Shirley Smircic said, “We are authorized by (NC General) statue to plead certain felonies in H & I Court.”

The new H & I Felony Court was established in Bladen County in October. Smircic said it was first introduced in Brunswick County in early 2018 in order to completely develop the program before taking it Columbus County and eventually bringing it to Bladen County. She said many surrounding prosecutorial districts were already using the H & I Felony Court before Brunswick, Bladen and Columbus counties established their system.

Smircic said the state of North Carolina uses a system called structured sentencing which was established by the NC General Assembly. The structured sentencing system classifies felonies using levels from A through I with Class A felonies being the most serious offenses and Class I felonies being the least serious offenses.

“With structured sentencing, we have a chart we use. A defendant’s sentence depends on the class of the felony he is charged with, then their prior record is reviewed,” said Smircic.

She said the combination of the class level of the felony and the defendant’s prior criminal record are used in the chart to develop a sentence.

Smircic said the H & I Felony Court is disposing of a lot of drug and property crime cases before it reaches the Superior Court. She explained that many drug offenses and property crime cases are classified as either a level H or level I felony under the Structured Sentencing Guidelines.

“A lot of what we do there is building their record,” said Smircic. “A lot of times you will see defendants pleading and receiving probation as a sentence. When they mess up again and again, we can hit them with a habitual felon charge.”

Smircic said the H & I Felony Court allows the District Attorney’s Office to move cases through the judicial system at a faster rate and it frees up the Superior Court System to deal with more serious crimes. She explained that the defendant, who has  his or her plea heard through H & I Felony Court, does not have to wait to be indicted by the Grand Jury and then navigate the case management process of Superior Court.

If a defendant decides they do not want to accept the plea arrangement offered by the District Attorney’s Office in H & I Felony Court, then their case will be moved to Superior Court where they will go through the case management process and receive a jury trial.

Smircic said the other benefits of the H & I Felony Court are the fact the defendant is building their criminal record quickly and in cases where restitution is ordered the victims receive that more quickly. She also said the defendant is not waiting for weeks to have their cases heard or to be allowed to accept a plea arrangement.

BladenOnline.com has recently been observing the H & I Felony Court program. We asked Smircic about one case where a Heroin charge was dismissed. She explained the defendant was allowed to plead guilty to possession charges. The other felonies she was charged with are the same class. Smircic said she was facing the same punishment If all of the charges were allowed to stand based on the Structured Sentencing Guidelines.

Another defendant received a conditional discharge meaning that if all of the conditions set forth by the court are met, the charges against him will be dismissed. Smircic explained he is essentially receiving a second chance.

“One of the things the legislature wants us to do, is to give someone a second chance,” said Smircic.

Smircic explained that often, the defendant will accept a plea arrangement because of the evidence against them. She said often, those who are charged with drug offenses are sentenced to a TASC Assessment. The TASC assessment is used to help identify what issues a defendant is struggling with and to help in identifying the proper treatment. TASC is not a drug treatment course or a drug treatment facility. It is an assessment that is used to refer the defendant to the proper provider to receive treatment.