Imagine that one of your loved ones had been murdered and your family had undergone the long ordeal of watching a trial. The murderer has been sentenced and (you think) is in jail for the rest of his life. All of a sudden on a Saturday morning trip to the grocery store you run into him.
Your heart rate jumps and you think to yourself: How in the world did this happen? But it could happen in North Carolina.
According to the North Carolina Department of Correction Division of Prisons Policy and Procedure .0603, some criminals are granted home leave. The original purpose of this was to “establish family relationships and community socialization in preparation for the transition into the community.” But this opportunity for convicted murderers doesn’t give victims’ families the sense of closure they thought they had.
According to the Department of Corrections, the criteria are:
“Inmates in minimum custody level III who have maintained this status for ninety (90) days and are within twelve (12) months of a release or parole eligibility date are eligible for consideration for home leaves. In addition, the inmate must be infraction free for 90 days. The inmate must make a formal request in writing about program participation. The facility superintendent will request the appropriate staff to conduct an investigation. In determining whether to grant the request, issues that are considered include the inmate’s behavior, performance in their work and program activities, reports from prison counselors, work supervisors, community volunteer and custodial recommendations. The home leave sponsor is restricted to adult (21 years of age or older) immediate family members or others who have acted in the place [of] parents where such relationships can be verified.”
There are several questions that have been brought up about this program. The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys sent a letter to the governor June 21 asking that the policy be rescinded immediately.
The letter states there were “149 convicted felons” who were permitted to leave Department of Correction facilities the weekend of June 15-16. Of those 149 permitted to leave, 36 were murderers.
After speaking to the Conference of the District Attorneys, I was surprised to learn 13 of those had been sentenced to life in prison under fair sentencing guidelines. Under fair sentencing, you must be within 12 months of your first available parole hearing — regardless if you are approved or denied parole. Yes, if you are denied parole you may go home on the weekends and are nowhere close to the 12 months of being released. If someone was sentenced to life and denied parole, he would not need to transition back into the community.
While questions were raised the past few weeks about who gets to go on home leave, Gov. McCrory decided to address some of the issues and change the policy.
Some changes that are being made to the policy are:
•Local prosecutors who handled an inmate's case and their victims must be notified every time the inmate is allowed home leave.
•Any inmate serving a life sentence under the old system will not be eligible for participation in the program, unless he or she has an actual parole date.
•Inmates who are convicted sex offenders will not be allowed to participate in the program. Current inmates who were allowed to participate in the program under the Mutual Agreement Parole Program will no longer be allowed.
•Inmates who are eligible for the program will have to be recommended by the facility head housing them, by the regional director and the deputy director of prisons.
The suggested changes will be implemented immediately, according to the department.
"We are pleased that Gov. McCrory has taken steps to address the concerns of prosecutors and crime victims across North Carolina. The home leave program does not punish criminals for their violent behavior, and for the victims of crime, it is not justice," said North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys President Phil Berger Jr.
"We look forward to reviewing their modifications to the home leave program, and working with the administration to strengthen the criminal justice system."
While these changes are a good beginning, there are still several issues to be addressed. Will a victim’s family be notified? What happens if someone does not obey the rules of the home leave procedures? What about someone who is denied parole? Should the procedure only be allowed to those who have a release date scheduled?
Until these questions are answered, the people of North Carolina have a right to be worried about convicted killers and other criminals getting weekends off before they have fully paid their debt to society.
— Angela Hight is a policy analyst for the Civitas Institute in Raleigh.