Publisher's note: This post, by Angela Hight, was originally published in the Justice & Public Safety section(s) of Civitas's online edition.
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 that 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The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys sent a letter to the Governor on June 21 asking that the policy be rescinded immediately. The letter states that there were "149 convicted felons" that 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 were 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.
There are other questions being raised about this policy as well. Some are: What is the cost of the investigations to approve the home visit? Are family victims of murdered loved ones notified that the offender is released on weekends? How do neighbors feel if they found out their next-door neighbor should be in jail? Are there sex offenders able to go on the weekend?
Civitas plans to reveal more about this issue soon.