Local News

Sudden releases raise questions about inmates' futures

Posted October 19, 2009 2:06 p.m. EDT
Updated October 19, 2009 7:13 p.m. EDT

— Only one of the violent North Carolina criminals set for release next week will have official supervision outside prison, and the state is rushing to establish community connections to transition them back to society.

Nine of the convicts will be immediately free of the state's watch when they are released Oct. 29 in the wake of court rulings on a 1970s law that limited the length of life sentences from that era.

Ten others are sex offenders who will have to register with the state and abide by laws limiting their activity but will not have regular contact with correction officials.

One of the convicts, Faye Brown, faces two decades of federal parole.

Department of Correction spokesman Keith Acree said Monday all the prisoners plan to stay with family, friends or in transitional housing.

He said the state is also going through a crash course to get the convicts ready for public life, reaching out to community groups who could help them find jobs or provide support.

Each will be given the name and phone number for a probation and parole officer that can be used as a resource, but those officers won't have any legal role in their lives.

"It's going to be a shock period, just for that moment that they get acclimated," said Robert Battle, a former convict who served 12 years in prison for a drug conspiracy conviction.

He now counsels former offenders on job and life skills for the Raleigh nonprofit Step Up Ministry.

"A lot of them still haven't learned what the appropriate way to become a success as far as being self sufficient is," he said. "If a person goes into the penal system without a great education, without great support and family, and you're returning back to society – I do not think a job and a home alone is the answer."

The group set to be released is made up primarily of murderers and rapists, some of whom targeted young girls. Seven were once on death row.

Three criminals – Alford Jones, James Pone and Manley Porter – have been involved in the DOC's pre-release program called Mutual Agreement Parole Program.

A state Senate amendment passed in 2005 requires the state to enroll at least 20 percent of eligible inmates into the program and guarantees that an offender will get out on parole if he or she satisfactorily completes the program. The primary reason for the program is to rehabilitate offenders and to help control the prison population.

"Some of these people are going to get out, and we think they will probably do fine in the community," Acree said. "But there are others, we've got concerns about. They'll probably have trouble and probably commit some new crimes."

The state is notifying local law enforcement about the releases, but that's as far as officials can go to keep tabs on the inmates.

It's another legal quandary that state attorneys have encountered.

One of the inmates, Bobby Bowden, had pointed to a law in place for several years in the 1970s that appears to describe a life sentence as only 80 years long. He said a variety of credits that prisoners can apply to their sentences mean his time behind bars is now complete.

The Attorney General's office argued before the Supreme Court last month that the law was "ambiguous," but justices were clearly unconvinced, grilling the state's attorneys with questions.

"This is such a straightforward issue from a legal point of view, it's too easy for a first-year law exam," said Staples Hughes, the state appellate defender, whose office handled Bowden's appeal. He said the state has had every chance to come up with an argument to keep the inmates behind bars but has not been able to.

Gov. Beverly Perdue's office continues to hope there may be a legal avenue to prevent the release. But attorneys for the state don't seem to know what that would be.

"Our lawyers certainly argued everything they could think of to stop this from happening, and the North Carolina Supreme Court does have the final say," said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper.

State officials believe dozens more inmates convicted three decades ago could soon be eligible for release.