Company for the governor: Criminal justice reform advocates launch vigil to urge use of clemency powers

By: - December 1, 2022 6:00 am

Attendees at the 2021 Vigil for Freedom and Racial Justice – Photo:

For the third year in a row, Decarcerate Now NC will host a vigil outside the governor’s mansion urging Gov. Roy Cooper to use his clemency power to reduce the number of people in North Carolina prisons and pardon people who have since gone home so they have a chance to move on with their lives after serving their time behind bars.

Organizers will maintain a constant presence outside the mansion for the next month, calling for justice, fairness and second chances for those locked in prisons across the state, especially those who are Black and other people of color. Over the course of December, advocates will complete more than 3,000 laps around the mansion, one lap for every 10 people in state prisons.

There were 30,287 people in North Carolina prisons as of Oct. 31, more than half of whom were Black.

Advocates — which include the North Carolina Justice Center (of which Policy Watch is a project — sent a letter to the governor on Nov. 30 explaining why they’ll be outside his mansion for the next 30 days.

“We stand vigil to call for decisive action to decarcerate North Carolina and stop the use of imprisonment as a catch-all response to societal harms, which is consistent with the recommendations of your just-reconstituted Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice (TREC),” the letter reads. “We hold vigil to advocate for the immediate release of those who are ill, the elderly, those in prison for technical violations of parole, and those who were incarcerated as children, as well as to commute the death sentences of those on death row.”

TREC released a set of recommendations last year. Organizers said not enough had changed since the release of the task force’s proposals, and that those suggestions hadn’t been adequately prioritized by state agencies under the governor’s control. For one, the letter notes that the Department of Adult Correction has a staffing shortage. If the state can’t hire more people to work in its prisons, the letter suggests, there should be fewer people imprisoned in North Carolina.

This is the third annual Vigil for Freedom and Racial Justice. Advocates see the governor’s profound clemency power — changing a person’s criminal conviction or length of their sentence — as a powerful tool for exacting change in the state’s justice system, and consider it essential that Cooper, a Democrat, wield it while the office remains under Democratic control.

Cooper himself established TREC in June 2020. The 24-member task force produced a massive report in December 2020 that focused on the ways existing policies disproportionately affected communities of color, and the path forward for righting those wrongs. Some of the recommendations were instituted, but most were not.

“If you can acknowledge, Gov. Cooper, that the system is racially harmful, why can’t you provide the relief to the people who have been harmed?” asked Kristie Puckett-Williams, the deputy director for engagement and mobilization for the ACLU of North Carolina.

Almost 400 people have signed the letter. It calls out Cooper’s more than three decades in government, as a state representative, senator and attorney general, alleging that he has “been a part of a system that led North Carolina down a path of mass incarceration.”

Now, as governor, those who signed the letter are calling on him to use his executive powers to address racial inequities and reduce the number of people in prison.

“We are asking you to leave no stone unturned in the fight to address the unfairness and racial inequities in our criminal legal system,” the letter reads.

A broad power

North Carolina governors can commute a sentence for any criminal offense except impeachment. It’s a broad power, but one that is rarely exercised. Cooper, for instance, “pardoned” turkeys for Thanksgiving before he used his clemency powers for people.

Cooper signed an Executive Order last year creating the Juvenile Sentence Review Board, which according to Ben Finholt and Jamie Lau of the Wilson Center for Science and justice at Duke University Law School, serves as a “mechanism for executive clemency,” which includes pardons and commutations.

The constitutional power is insulated from interference by the General Assembly, giving Democrats a chance to reform the justice system without input from Republicans.

It also has a lot of support, according to a poll reported by Finholt and Lau. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed said they supported using clemency to shorten the sentences of people serving excessive sentences who do not threaten public safety. There was broad support for reducing time behind bars for people over the age of 50, those who have served more than 20 years in prison, and those who were under age 20 at the time of their crime.

NC governors have rarely used their clemency powers despite broad latitude to do so. Chart from analysis by Ben Finholt and Jamie Lau.

The analysis provides numbers for each of these categories.  As of June 30, 2021, there were 7,198 people over the age of 50 in state prisons. As of June 5, 2021, there were 1,019 people imprisoned for crimes they committed when they were children. As of November 2020, there were 8,517 in prison who had served more than 20 years.

“In other words, there are thousands of people that the public would support releasing from prison, even without considering that doing so would address the horrific racial disparities produced by the North Carolina sentencing scheme,” Finholt and Lau wrote.

On March 10, 2022 Cooper commuted the sentences of three people who committed crimes when they were teenagers, the first time a North Carolina governor exercised their clemency powers since the early 2000s. Each of the three individuals — two men and a woman — had served between 20 and 30 years in prison and would be on state supervision once they were released.

Those commutations were the first recommended to the governor by the Juvenile Sentence Review Board, which Cooper created after North Carolina joined the rest of the country in raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds.

The applications were reviewed by the Office of Executive Clemency, the Office of General Counsel and the governor, indicating a thorough vetting process for any incarcerated person hoping to get a shortened sentence.

The Juvenile Sentence Review Board is still reviewing petitions from people locked up for crimes they committed when they were minors. The four-member board considers each applicant’s rehabilitation since their crime, maturity, education and work records while incarcerated, their behavior record and input from victim of members of the victim’s family.

Of the people eligible for review by the Board, according to Finholt and Lau, almost three-quarters are Black. Less than 18% are white.

It is that history that organizers will have in mind as they gather outside the governor’s mansion over the next month, beginning at 11 a.m. this morning.

As much as the vigil is an effort to get Cooper to act, it’s also an attempt to force him to recognize the humanity of the people who are imprisoned across the state.

“People inside of prisons are his constituents as well,” Puckett-Williams said. “When he says he cares about all North Carolinians, he has to include all 29,000 North Carolinians who are inside of cages right now.”

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.