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With Push to Empty North Carolina’s Death Row Comes Another to End Life Without Parole

Leaving office at the end of 2024, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) faces pressure from a coalition of 22 nonprofits to commute the sentences of all 136 prisoners on the state’s death row now. Pressing that plea, more than 200 advocates from the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty marched on the Governor’s mansion in Raleigh on December 2, 2023.

The state has not conducted an execution since 2006, but it would be unusual for a governor to single-­handedly empty a state’s death row. As PLN reported, former Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) succeeded before leaving office at the end of 2022, while former Louisiana Gov. Jon Bel Edwards (D) tried and failed before his term ended a year later. [See: PLN, Sep. 2023, p.60; and Dec. 2023, p.48.]

Even if North Carolina’s condemned prisoners were granted clemency, they would almost certainly face life without the possibility of parole (LWOP)—unless state lawmakers pass HB 697. Known as the Prison Resources Repurposing Act (PRRA), it was created by two state prisoners sentenced to LWOP, Phillip Vance Smith II and Timothy W. Johnson.

PRRA is not a “get out of jail” card; it includes educational, occupational and behavioral goals that those with long-­term sentences must work toward over a 20-­year period. Even then, release must be approved by the state Post-­Release Supervision and Parole Commission. But the bill does not require additional funding, repurposing existing rehabilitation resources instead.

“To do nothing will only exacerbate high recidivism rates, which lead to violent crime,” added the two.

Duke University researchers found that race is the primary driver of LWOP sentences in the state, not the severity of the crime. The Sentencing Project also found that LWOP sentences unfairly affect people of color, especially those convicted before 25, a group that the nonprofit says will “age out” of criminal activity by their late 30s—when their LWOP sentences will keep them locked up, without hope of becoming productive citizens.

While acknowledging public opposition to releasing violent offenders, who make up 70% of state prison population, Smith and Johnson note that North Carolina already releases violent prisoners every day, as their sentences expire. With PRRA, though, fewer will leave decades of confinement without a trade or an education needed to establish economic security, in turn avoiding recidivism.  


Sources: Bolts Magazine, NC Newsline

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