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Options for relieving North Carolina’s strained prison system
Adjustments for nonviolent felonies a start
Published Thursday, December 12, 2019 10:51 am
by Cole Villena | Media Hub

Criminal justice experts and advocates say North Carolina has options in reducing its prison population, which would benefit both the state’s 36,000 inmates and strained prison system.

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RALEIGH – Oklahoma made history last month by releasing 462 nonviolent offenders from state prisons in a single day.

It was the largest single-day prisoner release in the history of the United States, significant enough to knock Oklahoma down from its previous title of America’s most incarcerated state. The move will also save the state an estimated $11.9 million in future incarceration costs.

Don’t expect the same in North Carolina anytime soon.

“While the events in Oklahoma were national news, and rightfully so, they were possible and predicated on the passing of legislation,” John Bull, communications officer for the N.C. Department of Public Safety, said. “There is no such legislation under active consideration in North Carolina.”

While North Carolina’s 36,000 inmates make it 30th-most incarcerated state per capita in the United States, the state’s prison system is facing an overcrowding and understaffing problem. Just two months ago, the state announced the  temporary closing of three prisons due to staffing shortages.

“It’s absurd how thin they’re stretched,” Mary Pollard of N.C. Prisoner Legal Services said of the state’s prison system. “Even with the resources available, it’s just hard to find people to fill all those jobs.”

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While an Oklahoma-style mass prisoner release is unlikely, criminal justice experts and advocates say North Carolina has other options in reducing its prison population. Doing so could immediately benefit both the state’s 36,000 inmates and the state’s strained prison system, they said.

“Lawmakers ought to look at what happened in Oklahoma and understand that they can do this and it would be politically palatable,” Pollard said. “People understand good public policy.”

The groundwork for Oklahoma’s unprecedented move was laid in 2016, when Oklahomans voted “yes” on a ballot measure to reclassify certain low-level felonies — including property offenses up to $1,000 and simple drug possession — as misdemeanors.

The move was made retroactive through a state bill passed in May, allowing eligible prisoners to apply for a commutation, or reduced sentence, in line with the state’s newly-updated guidelines. The 462 prisoners eligible for commutation were approved for release by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt on Nov. 4.

North Carolina’s sentencing and parole laws make a direct application of Oklahoma’s reform measures unlikely.

Since 1994, North Carolina’s courts have determined an offender’s minimum and maximum prison sentences based on a model of structured sentencing that basically eliminated the state’s system discretionary parole. Anyone sentenced on or after Oct. 1, 1994, cannot apply for early release in a traditional in-person parole hearing and is instead automatically made eligible at the end of a mandatory minimum sentence.

Pollard said the lack of a discretionary parole system doesn’t make sense, especially for offenders who may have been eligible for parole under the pre-1994 guidelines. Reforming the state’s parole system, she said, would be a start in following Oklahoma’s lead.

“People do change and mature, and we're holding a lot of people who are not threats to public safety,” she said.

The state has reformed its parole system in recent years, especially with regard to juvenile offenders. A 2016 Fourth Circuit Court ruling held that life without parole was unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. Now, those offenders can apply for a reduced sentence via a video conference with members of the Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission.

Ben Finholt has studied the impacts of these juvenile reforms as a staff attorney with N.C. Prisoner Legal Services. Finholt said that while the reforms have led to drastically higher levels of parole for young inmates, the parole process for adults is still based mainly on letters and forms rather than in-person hearings.

“For adults, there's no conversation,” he said. “There’s no meeting. They never talk to the offender at all.”

Dawn Blagrove, executive director of the Carolina Justice Policy Center, said that commuting the sentences of death row inmates to life without parole would be another easy step in reducing the state’s prison system budget. North Carolina hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, yet a 2009 study from Duke University found the state spends an additional $10.8 million annually by fighting appeals from death row inmates.

“The lowest-hanging fruit would be for Gov. Cooper to commute all of death row to life without the possibility of parole,” Blagrove said. “It wouldn’t change the number of people in prison, but it would certainly exponentially save on costs and overhead.”

Another potential area for change would be to eliminate habitual felon sentencing, North Carolina’s version of the controversial three strikes law. Under state law, anyone found guilty of three felonies over their lifetime is automatically sentenced at a felony class four levels higher than their most serious offense.

“If you go from a Class H felony to a Class D felony, that’s the difference between kicking in the door of somebody’s storage shed in the back of their yard and armed robbery,” Finholt said. “None of that seems like a positive thing for our criminal justice system.”

Habitual felon sentencing is particularly controversial in North Carolina because its structured sentencing law already accounts for a person’s prior criminal record in determining prison time.
Before the habitual felon law, a person with three instances of a low-level felony such as simple breaking and entering would receive a maximum of five additional months on his or her sentence for having a prior record. Once the crime has been “habitualized,” that same person’s sentence more than quadruples.

“It’s too big of a hammer,” Finholt said.

Blagrove said commuting habitual felon sentences could be a “prime place for Gov. Cooper to start” in moving toward an Oklahoma-style reform. Such a move would likely not result in immediate release for all 4,800 inmates currently being held under the habitual felon law, she said, but it would put all of them on a faster track to a fair release.

“We could really have the best of both worlds,” she said. “We could reduce sentences drastically without having this mass exodus from prison that (Cooper) may get some backlash for.”

Cooper’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Regardless of the method used, all experts interviewed agreed that reducing North Carolina’s prison population could be a positive good for both inmates and the citizens of North Carolina.

“We should be only using our prisons to incarcerate people who need to be there,” Pollard said. “If we took a good, hard look at our prison population, I bet we could identify a pretty large swath of folks who don’t actually need to be there to keep the public safe.”


I'm all for the habitual reform for non violent offenders. I think this 3 strike rule is unjust when they are not the same crime. When is it fair that you take away someone's freedom over something they did 5-10 years ago and still use it against them. To give someone 7-10 years for non violent crime is ridiculous
Posted on April 7, 2020
Lets push this habitual reform and see how much Gov. Cooper really cares about his people and position. Non violent offenders get more time that murderer's and child molesters.
Posted on February 19, 2020
O yea my question do you think my wife could possibly get out early. 6 consecutive sentences she is almost done with her third.
Posted on December 25, 2019
My wife and I have been together for 23 years she was given a 3 to 4 years for credit card theft. we have 5 children my wife has never been in any trouble before this. The judge charged her each time the card was swiped. Charged her with 6 felonies each sentence is 6 to 17 months ran consecutive. This is a nightmare from hell. They had on my wife's motion to discover she was charged with getting a counter check the lady was 80. Its crazy my wife is innocent but got the book thrown at her. Her lawyer is a prosecutor in child support court. He just got out of rehab before her case. They have tore our family apart over 10,000 bucks my wife didn't get. The old lady said after my wife pleaded she said she didn't think my wife did this and didn't want her to go to prison. And get this the court let the ladys daughter take out the charge on my wife. The lady lived over 3000 miles away never seen my wife or talked to her. Each time at the atm my wife was with the old lady. O yea the old lady has short term memory loss. She wanted to shop everyday. My wife is wonderful and has been a wonderful wife and mother for 23 years. All 5 kids are by me. One is in the Navy. She has a high school diploma and a college degree. They threw my wife away like trash.
Posted on December 25, 2019
Absolutely, what can we do to support eliminating the injustice of the Habitual Felon sentencing for non violent crimes?
Posted on December 21, 2019
This is a very great start...
Posted on December 12, 2019

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