Legislators to try again for parole expansion bill written by imprisoned people serving life sentences

By: - February 16, 2023 12:30 pm
A copy of a bill filed in the 2021 session written by two men serving life sentences at Nash Correctional Institution.

Lawmakers will again consider a bill this session that would allow people sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole the chance to earn release and not die behind bars.

Two men serving life sentences wrote the bill, pitching it as a way to reduce violence in state prisons by offering people serving life an incentive to better themselves during their incarceration.

“Many people think prisoners should want to be better simply because they are in prison,” Phillip Vance Smith II, one of the authors of the bill, told Policy Watch last year. “It doesn’t work that way. People with no reason to change will not change.”

There are 1,616 people serving life without parole sentences in North Carolina, according to data provided last year by Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at Duke Law’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice. Almost two-thirds of them are Black.

Eighteen legislators co-sponsored the bill in the 2021-2022 legislative session.

Just five lawmakers are attached to this year’s bill, which was filed yesterday, but more can join on later in the legislating process. The primary sponsors of House Bill 126 are Reps. Carolyn G. Logan (D-Mecklenburg) and Kelly M. Alexander, Jr. (D-Mecklenburg). Three other Democrats have also signed on to sponsor the proposal.

The bill would allow people sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole a chance to earn their release after 20 years in prison, provided they comply with certain educational, vocational and work requirements.

The Department of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice would assess the needs of people sentence to life without parole within the first five years of a person’s sentence, then give them a 15-year contract outlining their work and educational requirements to have a chance to not die in prison.

The bill isn’t an automatic get-out-of-jail-free card. Those who are approved for release are put on parole for five years, giving the state continued supervision over that individual’s life. Those who violate the terms of their supervision are ineligible for parole again for five years.

The proposal is retroactive, meaning those who have served 20 years and completed certain rehabilitative requirements would be eligible to get a contract outlining what they must do for up to the next three years in order to be eligible for parole.

That would potentially give Smith and his co-author, Timothy Johnson, a path out of prison. Both men have completed an array of rehabilitative programs throughout their decades in prison, including publishing a quarterly news source called the Nash News, where they are incarcerated at Nash Correctional Institution.

“A popular misconception that all we’re doing in prison is time,” Smith said in an earlier interview. “But throughout this time, we’re changing. We’re changing lives, we’re changing each other.”

To read more about the bill, see this NC Policy Watch story from last year.

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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.