Raleigh, N.C. — Those convicted of first-degree murder for crimes committed before they were 18 years old would have a chance at parole under a bill a House Judiciary Committee approved Monday morning.
The House passed the measure 111-6. The Senate voted 40-1 in favor late Monday night. The measure now goes to Gov. Bev Perdue for her signature.
Senate Bill 635 responds to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v Alabama. The high court ruled that it is unconstitutional for state to have a sentencing system that requires life sentences any crime committed by someone under age 18.
Under North Carolina's current laws, the only options for sentencing are life in prison or, for those over age 18, death.
"Something needs to be in place for folks who otherwise might just be in limbo," said Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake. "Otherwise, the courts might just have to jury-rig something."
According to the state Division of Adult Correction, there are 88 inmates currently in the state prison system who need to be re-sentenced under the Supreme Court ruling. Dozens of other cases at various stages of trial could also be affected.
The proposed legislation creates a sentences of life with the possibility of parole for young people convicted of murder. Those who receive that sentence must serve at least 25 years before they are eligible for parole. The parole period would last five years.
Those who are convicted solely under the felony murder rule – the murder happened during the commission of another crime but was not premeditated – would automatically received life with parole.
For those who were under 18 but were found to have in some way planned the crime, the court would move to a sentencing phase. During that hearing, the court would have to take into account factors such as the defendant's immaturity, ability to appreciate the consequences of his conduct, prior record, mental health and potential for rehabilitation.
"That seems to make good sense," said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, who said that he backed the bill.
The measure also directs the state's sentencing commission to study the laws for sentencing those under 18 and report back if further changes are needed.
Rep. Alice Bordsen, D-Alamance, said she worried that defendants released on parole could find themselves back in prison for "any violation," something she said could lead to someone being recommitted.
Glazier said the parole commission doesn't usually send people back to prison for small transgressions.
"I appreciate your solicitude for these parolees, but keep in mind they've all been convicted of first-degree murder," Stam said.
Following the house committee, the bill had a relatively easy path through both the House and Senate. Lawmakers of both parties agreed that it needed to be done.
The measure now goes to Gov. Bev Perdue for her signature or veto.