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North Carolina Prisoner’s First-Degree Murder Conviction is Valid Basis to Deny Awarding Good Time Credits

by David M. Reutter

On August 27, 2010, North Carolina’s Supreme Court reversed a grant of habeas corpus relief to a prisoner serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, holding that prison officials acted properly in withholding various good time credits accumulated against his sentence.

Alford Jones, convicted in 1975, is one of a group of prisoners who committed first-degree murder between April 8, 1974 and June 30, 1978. Relying upon the ruling in State v. Bowden, 668 S.E.2d 107 (N.C. App. 2008), Jones argued that his life sentence was statutorily defined as a sentence of eighty years.

The Wayne County Superior Court reviewed Jones’ habeas petition and agreed that he was entitled to be awarded good time, gain time and merit time by the North Carolina Department of Correction (NCDOC). The court concluded that Jones had served the entirety of his sentence once the credits were applied, and ordered his release. [See: PLN, May 2010, p.34].

On review, the Supreme Court agreed that the state law at issue, N.C.G.S. § 14-2 (Cum. Supp 1974), provides that a “sentence of life imprisonment” is “a term of 80 years in the state’s prison.”

The NCDOC argued that it had “never used good time, gain time, or merit time credits for inmates who received sentences of life imprisonment.” Prison officials further argued they had awarded credits to Jones not to calculate an unconditional release date but rather for the limited purposes of establishing a date if the governor commuted his sentence, to move him to the least restrictive security level and to calculate his parole eligibility.

Jones claimed that the failure to award him earned credits against his 80-year life term violated his rights to due process and equal protection, and constituted an ex post facto violation. The Supreme Court addressed each issue independently.

The Court held that Jones’ liberty interest, if any, in having the credits used for the purpose of calculating an unconditional release date was de minimus, particularly when contrasted with the state’s compelling interest “to imprison prisoners” until they can be released while ensuring public safety. That state interest was particularly pronounced when dealing with prisoners convicted of first-degree murder.

The NCDOC had reviewed Jones annually for parole, and upon denying him parole determined that his unconditional release would endanger public safety. Jones’ equal protection claim likewise failed because the NCDOC had never applied credits to Jones or other similarly convicted prisoners to calculate an unconditional release date, which meant the NCDOC “did not fully prepare Jones for unconditional release.” The public safety interest led the Supreme Court to conclude that the NCDOC’s regulations do not require sentence reduction credits to be applied to prisoners convicted of first-degree murder during the relevant time period.

Since the NCDOC’s regulations did not retroactively increase the punishment or take away something that was given, the Court held there was no ex post facto violation. In conclusion, the Supreme Court found that the fact that Jones was convicted of first-degree murder provided the NCDOC with a rational basis that he was more dangerous than prisoners convicted of other crimes, and therefore was not eligible to receive the good time credits granted to other prisoners. The Superior Court’s grant of habeas relief was therefore reversed. See: Jones v. Keller, 364 N.C. 249, 698 S.E.2d 49 (N.C. 2010), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Jones v. Keller