NC prison officials tweak home release program

ablythe@newsobserver.comJuly 3, 2013 

— State prison officials on Wednesday announced tweaks to a program that allows some minimum-security inmates nearing the end of their sentences to go home on the weekends.

The changes came nearly a week after prosecutors began a campaign to end the state’s home-release program.

The N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, led by Phil Berger Jr., the Rockingham County district attorney who is president of the prosecutors’ lobbying organization, complained last month that convicted killers have been allowed to spend time at home without notice to local prosecutors or relatives of victims.

The district attorneys got interested after someone mentioned to a staff member in the prosecutors’ organization that they saw a lawyer convicted of altering court records in Johnston County on a golf course before his prison sentence had expired.

The N.C. Conference of District Attorneys began looking into it, and Berger, then president-elect of the group, asked the Civitas Institute to research the policy and determine who was taking weekend leaves.

Civitas analyzed the program based on documents produced in a public-records request; the documents were shared with The News & Observer.

Armed with those numbers, Berger sent a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory asking him to end the program immediately.

State Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Republican lawyer from Wilmington and a high-profile advocate for law-and-order legislation who once ran for attorney general, also pushed for a dismantling of the program.

Home leave rule changes

McCrory asked for a review of the program. On Wednesday, the state Department of Public Safety announced a series of tweaks as a result of the review, including:

• More “rigorous” notification of district attorneys and victim families before inmates are released under the program, which has provided more than 2,000 felons home visits since 2008.

• Barring convicted sex offenders from participating.

• Preventing inmates serving a life sentence from participating unless he or she has a parole date scheduled.

• Requiring all other inmates eligible for the program to receive recommendations from the head of the prison housing the inmate, and the regional director and deputy director of the prisons.

“With these modifications, the home leave program will continue to serve as a useful tool to assist an inmate in transitioning from prison to home, while additionally serving to reduce recidivism,” Kieran Shanahan, secretary of the Department of Public Safety, said in a statement.

The program was set up to help prisoners transition back into society, a concept widely accepted as important in helping to keep ex-convicts from returning to prison.

David Guice, commissioner of Adult Correction, said last week that, for more than three decades, the program has provided inmates nearing release “to re-establish family relationships and community socialization in preparation for their transition back into the community.”

Every inmate is carefully screened and selected and undergoes a thorough investigation before admission into the program, Guice added.

Berger responded with a statement on Wednesday.

“We are pleased that Governor McCrory has taken steps to address the concerns of prosecutors and crime victims across North Carolina,” Berger’s statement said. “The home leave program does not punish criminals for their violent behavior, and for the victims of crime, it is not justice. We look forward to reviewing their modifications to the home leave program, and working with the administration to strengthen the criminal justice system.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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