Raleigh, N.C. — The state Department of Correction has adjusted release dates for 27 inmates who should be freed following an appellate court ruling, setting the earliest date for unconditional release in 2054, officials said Thursday.
The inmates – mostly convicted murderers and sex offenders – were scheduled to be released last month after the state Supreme Court upheld a Court of Appeals ruling in favor of double murderer Bobby Bowden. He 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 Bowden and his attorneys argued that good behavior and other credits have shortened the sentences to the point that they are now complete.
The potential releases sparked outrage among many, including the governor, partly because all but one of the inmates would be free without any post-release supervision.
Gov. Beverly Perdue, who has vowed to block the releases, has argued that officials improperly applied some of the credits.
"I will continue to pursue all legal means of preventing the release of these inmates without any review by the parole board or any post-release supervision,” Perdue said in a statement.
Four inmates involved in pre-release programs who were scheduled to be released in 2010 and one in 2011 are not affected by the new plan, a DOC spokesman said.
DOC Secretary Alvin Keller has directed that the unconditional release date for each life sentence imposed for crimes between April 8, 1974, and June 30, 1978, be calculated as 80 years, minus applicable jail credit earned while the prisoner awaited conviction and sentencing.
Staples Hughes, the state appellate defender whose office represented Bowden, said it was regrettable the state was spending so much time and money pursuing an argument that has no legal basis.
"They, in essence, are continuing to attempt to defy the rule of law," Hughes said. "It has long since ceased to be a legal issue. It is simply a political issue and a mechanism for the governor to use to attempt to raise her popularity."
According to Keller, the Fair Sentencing Act specifically prohibited felons serving life prison sentences from receiving good behavior credits for purposes of unconditional release from prison.
James Woodward, the DOC secretary in 1983, expanded the rule to apply to those serving life terms.
Since 1955, the DOC has awarded good behavior credits for prisoners with life sentences only for purposes of earning a more favorable custody grade, for becoming eligible for parole and for a commutation of a sentence by the governor, Keller said.
The department will continue to do so but won't award credits to calculate an unconditional release date, he said.