Commentary

Prison reform proposal would promote safer prisons and safer communities

a view from outside Central Prison in Raleigh

Raleigh’s Central Prison (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

The conventional wisdom is that people serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences are incorrigibles undeserving of a second chance. But what if people serving these sentences could earn their way out of prison by showing growth and concrete evidence of rehabilitation?

Proposed by incarcerated individuals, the Prison Resources Repurposing Act, or PRRA, offers a solution that can allow for the release of exceptional people serving LWOP while making North Carolina safer.

If enacted, the PRRA would create a structure that allows people serving LWOP to earn their second chance for freedom. This can be done by mandating educational, occupational, and behavioral goals over a 20-year period in preparation for release eligibility. It requires no additional funding, instead repurposing existing rehabilitative mechanisms into a tiered advancement structure designed to foster positive development.

Unlike past parole methods, release under the PRRA is not guaranteed, and only grants mercy to exceptional candidates. Release mechanisms of the past automatically cut prison sentences to account for limited bed space. The process rarely considered a showing of rehabilitation.

The PRRA offers a better system of release by mandating a display of personal change from potential candidates.

Furthermore, the North Carolina Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission would vet each individual before a plan could be offered. If no plan for release is offered by the Commission, due to the nature of the original crime or behavior while incarcerated, that person will serve life behind bars.

“Life Without Parole Sentencing in North Carolina,” a 2021 study by Duke University researchers, credits racial inequity in North Carolina counties as the primary driver of LWOP sentences, not severity of the crime.

Several reports by The Sentencing Project find LWOP sentences disproportionately affecting people of color who are convicted before their brains fully mature at age 25. These studies note how this group will naturally age out of committing crimes after reaching their mid-30s, yet LWOP sentences prevent them from earning freedom as adults.

Given evidence supporting the unwarranted, racially-biased nature of LWOP sentences, North Carolina should explore allowing release for exceptional lifers who have proven they are no longer a threat to society.

We recognize that LWOP should be reserved for the most heinous perpetrators, and the PRRA ensures that end. Our plan will not open the proverbial floodgates, but will instead act as a release valve controlled by those already tasked with granting release to long-term prisoners.

Lawmakers are taking our proposal seriously. In 2021, 18 Democratic NC House Representatives introduced the PRRA as HB 697. The bill died in committee, most likely from lack of bipartisan support. NC House Representatives sponsored it once more in 2023 as HB 126, but it failed again, most likely for the same reason.

We do not consider criminal justice reform a partisan issue. Every North Carolinian is affected by the failures of mass incarceration. To do nothing will only exacerbate high recidivism rates, which lead to violent crime.

We believe that passing the PRRA will positively impact North Carolina by making prisons less violent and ensuring the rehabilitation of released people, thus creating a safer community.

Passing the PRRA would reduce prison violence by giving long-term prisoners goals to work toward, instead of simply warehousing them in perpetual hopelessness. Furthermore, we believe these long-term prisoners will inspire those serving short sentences to choose better life paths while incarcerated.

As incarcerated people, we hope to positively impact the same community we may have damaged in the past. We cannot right the wrongs we have committed, but we can contribute to societal repair and the prevention of further harm to others. Forwarding our ideas is not a novelty, it is our responsibility as citizens. By identifying problems within the system we inhabit, we are in the best position to offer solutions, because we are impacted by laws and policies that are not working to end violence or harm.

We are aware of negative connotations accompanying proposals to release violent offenders. But think about this: North Carolina releases violent offenders daily. Seventy percent of the state’s prison population has been convicted of a violent crime, as noted in a March 2021 News & Observer article. Many of these offenders are released after decades in prison without earning an education or learning a trade, because the current sentence structure only assigns a mandatory minimum release date for which the state must comply. Although rehabilitation can be achieved by diligent individuals, the system itself fails to help all incarcerated people change before release. This practice contributes to a national 67.5% recidivism rate, as published by The Federal Bureau of Prisons.

By mandating a display of positive change before release, the PRRA ensures that people reenter society with survival tools and a positive mindset. What could possibly be wrong about supporting that?

The PRRA will be sponsored again during the 2025 legislative session. We hope to gain more support as we strive to build a safer North Carolina.

Click here to read our full proposal in the North Carolina Law Review, “Hope for the Hopeless: The Prison Resources Repurposing Act.” 

SOURCE LIST (In order of reference):

1) Brandon L. Garrett, Travis M. Seale-Carlisle, Karima Modjadidi & Kristen M. Renberg, “Life Without Parole Sentencing in North Carolina”, 99 N.C. L. Rev. 279. (2021)
https://scholarship.law.unc.edu/nclr/vol99/iss2/2

2) Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., “No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment”, The Sentencing Project 2021, p. 28, 37-38.

Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., “Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences”, The Sentencing Project 2017, p. 14-18.

3) Phillip V. Smith II & Timothy W. Johnson, “Hope for the Hopeless: The Prison Resources Repurposing Act,” 100 N.C. L. Rev. 713 (2022)
https://scholarship.law.unc.edu/nclr/vol100/iss3/2

4) Virginia Bridges, “‘I Thought I Was Gonna Die in Prison’: How COVID-19 Is Opening NC Prison Gates”, The News & Observer March 2021.

5) Anthony B. Bradley, “Ending Overcriminalization and Mass Incarceration: Hope From Civil Society”, 2018.

 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Phillip Vance Smith, II
Phillip Vance Smith, II

Phillip Vance Smith, II was convicted of murder, has been serving LWOP for 21 years, and he is a Smart Justice Fellow with the ACLU of North Carolina.

MORE FROM AUTHOR
Timothy W. Johnson
Timothy W. Johnson

Timothy W. Johnson was convicted of felony murder, has been serving LWOP for 18 years, and he is a graduate of The College at Southeastern.

MORE FROM AUTHOR