Raleigh, N.C. — As the legal battle to keep 27 inmates in prison brews, some state officials are considering a back-up plan to address the issue.
The 27 inmates were scheduled to be released last Thursday after the state Supreme Court agreed with double murderer Bobby Bowden, who contended that a 1970s law defined a life sentence as 80 years and sued for his release.
The 1981 Fair Sentencing Act included a retroactive provision that essentially cut all of those sentences in half, and good behavior and other credits have shortened the sentences to the point that they are now complete.
Gov. Beverly Perdue opposes the releases, saying that the convicted killers and rapists would be let out from prison with no provision for any continued supervision after their release. Over time, she said, more than 120 people serving life sentences could qualify for early release under the Supreme Court's ruling.
"I'm going to do whatever it takes to play every card in the deck to keep these prisoners in jail," Perdue said.
That includes possibly calling a special session of the General Assembly to address the issue.
The 2010 legislative session doesn't begin until May, and the Supreme Court could rule on Perdue's efforts to block the inmates' release long before that. Court arguments are expected in the next month.
"I do know if there was a session what kind of legislation I would ask for. I have a staff working on that," she said, adding that she hopes she doesn't have to bring lawmakers to Raleigh.
Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand said lawmakers also are looking for solutions to the inmate releases.
"(We're) trying to figure out what we can do in the constitutional fashion," said Rand, who announced Wednesday that he will resign his legislative seat in the coming weeks to become chairman of the state Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission.
"If the need arises to protect the people of North Carolina, I would hope there would be (a special session)," he said.
No legislation could be passed that would retroactively extend the prisoners' sentences, Rand said, but lawmakers might be able to put supervision conditions on them after their release.
Raleigh defense attorney Karl Knudsen said it would be unconstitutional for the General Assembly to add an additional punishment or requirements on the inmates after the fact.
"You can make (the sentence) better, but you can't make it worse," Knudsen said.
He said a special legislative session "would be a waste of money."
A special session would cost North Carolina taxpayers about $50,000 a day for legislative staff salaries, travel expenses and daily allowances for lawmakers.