No one knows for sure how many people are wrongfully incarcerated in federal prisons for gun possession crimes because of a quirk in North Carolina sentencing laws.
But civil libertarians and defense attorneys contend thousands are.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation are pushing for help from the U.S. Department of Justice in identifying the prisoners. They’re also seeking assistance in determining those who did time as felons in possession of a firearm even though they should not have been considered a felon.
“There are people in prison for crimes they did not commit,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation. “There are people serving sentences for much longer than they should be serving, and that’s not compatible to fundamental justice.”
At the core of a complex legal issue is a 2011 decision from the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that effectively changed the definition of who could be considered a felon in North Carolina.
The federal government defines a felony as a crime punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of a year, and someone convicted of such a crime is a felon.
But the federal courts in North Carolina were treating defendants as felons when their criminal records were not serious enough for that to be the case, according to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals case known as the United States vs. Simmons. As a result, a person with a less serious criminal record could be sentenced as if he had a lengthy one. The lack of distinction resulted in sentences the ACLU says were inappropriate, such as a sentence based on being “a felon in possession of a firearm” when the defendant was not, in fact, a felon.
North Carolina’s unique laws
What puts North Carolina in a league of its own, though, are “structured sentencing” laws adopted by the state legislature in 1993. The law grouped offenses into classes for purposes of sentencing. But the grouping sometimes magnified the records of lesser offenders when they came to federal court. In many cases, North Carolina’s federal courts handed down stiffer sentences than merited by the defendants’ records, civil liberties advocates contend.
In June, USA TODAY exposed the problems unique to North Carolina in an investigation called “Locked up but Innocent?”
The newspaper’s investigation showed that dozens of innocent people languished in prison more than half a year after the 2011 Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.
Others had erroneous criminal records that could pose a problem when seeking employment and educational opportunities.
Lack of uniformity claimed
Defense attorneys complained about a lack of uniformity in North Carolina’s three federal court districts — the Eastern, which includes Raleigh, the Middle, which includes Durham, Chapel Hill and Greensboro, and the Western, which includes Charlotte.
Prosecutors were resisting the relief being sought by defense attorneys, putting up procedural roadblocks to freedom.
Early this month, ACLU representatives sent a letter to top U.S. Department of Justice officials. By their count, and no one contends it is a complete accounting, ACLU representatives say more than 3,000 prisoners are potentially innocent or entitled to sentencing reductions.
The U.S. Department of Justice issued guidelines on August 9 for how federal prosecutors should handle the cases.
Prosecutors were instructed to waive certain arguments that were used over the past year to bar or delay relief. But the government has yet to agree to waive those arguments for people who were unjustly sentenced — sometimes to long mandatory minimum or “career offender” sentences.
“This is an encouraging first step, but much more has to be done to obtain justice for those who were wrongly incarcerated,” Brook said in a prepared statement released Tuesday. “This new policy does not help all of the thousands of inmates whose sentences could be affected by the Simmons decision. We continue to urge the Justice Department to take a proactive stance toward identifying and assisting all those who may be unjustly languishing in prison.”