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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — A killer convicted today in North Carolina would have no hope for parole. So why was parole granted to a Winston-Salem man 30 years into his life sentence for second-degree murder? The answer requires a history lesson.

Richard Van Ridgill (NC DOC)

Richard Van Ridgill, who lived on Willow St. in Winston-Salem, was 20 when he shot two men during an attempted robbery near the Skyline Village Apartments on the city’s South Side on Jan. 27, 1993, the News & Record reported. He was arrested the next day.

Ridgill originally was charged with murder, armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, but he was convicted in Forsyth County Superior Court on charges of second-degree murder and armed robbery on Sept. 13, 1993, two days before his 21st birthday. He was sentenced to life on the murder charge and a concurrent 14 years for the robbery.

After serving 30 years of his life sentence, Ridgill, now 49, is expected to be paroled on June 3, 2024.

A man convicted of those same charges today wouldn’t have that option.

What is parole?

Let’s start with the basics. Parole is a form of early release for convicts serving out their sentences behind bars. It’s a way for convicts to legally get out of jail before completing their sentences.

According to Cornell Law School, it’s usually up to a parole board to determine if a prisoner is ready for parole and what rules they have to follow once they’re out.

“For example, paroled prisoners often must get and keep a job, avoid drugs and alcohol, avoid their victims, not commit any crimes, and report regularly to their parole officer,” Cornell Law’s definition reads.

In North Carolina, that decision-making board was the Parole Commission. A version of that commission still exists today albeit under a new name and with new responsibilities as the Post-Release Supervision & Parole Commission.

‘Overcrowding of our state’s prisons’

When Ridgill was arrested in 1993, North Carolina courts were operating under a set of guidelines called the Fair Sentencing Act that had been in place since 1981, according to a history published by the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission. The Fair Sentencing Act was meant to assure that sentencing was handled in similar ways for similar cases. The idea was, as the name implies, to make sentencing fairer, but also to keep the population of North Carolina’s prisons under control and avoid overcrowding.

“North Carolina was not alone in its efforts, with other states also enacting laws anticipated to stabilize or even reduce the prison population,” according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s history on the topic. “Such was not the case.”

Within two years, sentences had become longer, prisons became overcrowded and the disparity in sentences was getting worse once again.

“Ultimately, it was a number of factors that converged to create the overcrowding of our state’s prisons,” the NC Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission said in its history. “These included an embrace of ‘tough on crime’ determinate sentencing policies, mandatory active sentences for drug offenders as an outgrowth of the ‘War on Drugs,’ a failure to provide adequate prison resources to meet the sharp increase in admissions and a significant increase in the crime rate.”

The War on Drugs brought with it mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking offenses, and the Safe Roads Act laid down mandatory jail or prison time for offenders with repeat drunk driving convictions.

In 1975, there were, on average, less than 13,000 people in North Carolina’s correctional facilities at any given time. By 1985, that number had grown to 17,500.

“Inmates were bunked three high in beds only 18 inches apart,” the commission said. “Day rooms in the prison were used for sleeping quarters. Management of the population became difficult.”

North Carolina was under threat of a federal takeover of the state’s prison system, a fate that played out for dozens of other states at the time. On Jan. 1, 1989, corrections agencies in 31 other states were operating under court order, federal courts had set prison population limits in 27 states and a federally-appointed Special Master was supervising 16 states.

The short-term solutions were out-of-state housing, population limits and parole.

Parole in North Carolina

Parole in North Carolina goes as far back as 1868. Back then, the governor had the power to grant pardons, which at the time included parole, but, in 1955, a Constitutional amendment took that power from the governor and gave the Board of Paroles full authority to grant and revoke parole.

As the Fair Sentencing Act went into effect in 1981, the commission still had “considerable discretion in releasing offenders with primary considerations being rehabilitation and public safety,” according to the commission’s history.

Among the state’s efforts to get prison overcrowding under control, state legislature enacted Community Service Parole in 1983, allowing the commission to release some of the “least dangerous offenders.” They were more cautious and conservative in their releases up until 1987 when the General Assembly passed the Prison Population Stabilization Act, better known as the prison cap. The cap forced the commission to release more convicts. As a result, the commission, according to its history, paroled people convicted of misdemeanors without evaluating whether or not the convict was likely to re-offend.

“Many thousands of these offenders were moved in and out of prison quickly under a system called parole and terminate, or P&T,” the commission said.

In 1994, everything changed. Lawmakers passed the Structured Sentencing Act, a more regimented system, to replace the failing Fair Sentencing Act and ended parole as we knew it.

“Structured Sentencing eliminated parole as it existed under prior sentencing law,” NCDPS said. “However, the new sentencing law did not alter the Commission’s discretion for offenders whose crimes were committed prior to its enactment.”

Basically, all convicts who were eligible under the old system were legacied in, but any new convicts going forward wouldn’t have that option.

How do prison sentences work now?

Under Structured Sentencing, which is still in place today, judges refer to punishment charts to determine what sentences to impose, and those sentences come as a range of months, not one singular total number of months. Those punishment charts have gone through a few incarnations with the latest established in 2013.

Felony punishment chart

On the felony punishment chart, one axis shows the possible offense classes. Felonies are categorized from A to I with A being the most serious crimes and I being the least serious. On the other axis, judges evaluate prior record level with I being minor or no prior convictions and VI being violent or extensive prior convictions.

Judges have the discretion to impose a sentence in the “presumptive range,” “aggravated range” or “mitigated range” depending on whether or not there are any circumstances that make the crime more or less egregious.

For each of these ranges, there’s a minimum number of months that an offender must serve and there’s a maximum that is about 20% longer than the minimum term.

So let’s say, for example, that someone were to be sentenced on a charge of second-degree murder, a Class B1 felony, but they had no prior convictions and there were no aggravating or mitigating factors. The court would sentence our hypothetical felony offender to 192 to 240 months, or 16 to 20 years.

Misdemeanor punishment chart

The misdemeanor punishment chart is similar with a few key differences. One axis of the chart is class with A1 being the most serious and 3 being the least serious. On the other axis, prior conviction level is ranked either I, II or III with I being no prior convictions, II being one to four prior convictions and III being five or more prior convictions.

Now the question of whether our hypothetical felony offender serves only 16 years or the full 20 is a question of credits. By default, convicts will serve their maximum sentence, in this case, 20 years. A convict can reduce their sentence, however, by earning credits, according to Charlotte-based Gilles Law. An inmate may get credit for spending time in jail prior to their conviction or, if they were sentenced after Oct. 1, 1994, they could get earned time sentence credit for working full-time or participating in certain programs. There’s also meritorious time sentence credit for performing exemplary acts, participating in apprenticeship training, certain program or educational achievements or working overtime, in emergency situations or in inclement weather.

Gilles Law emphasizes that “prison credit is a highly complicated and technical area of law.” Don’t rely on this brief overview to make any determinations of your own.

So how do those pre-Structured Sentencing inmates get parole?

When Structured Sentencing went into effect in October 1994, Ridgill had already been behind bars for more than a year. Even though North Carolina changed how it issues sentences, the state continued to honor the terms in which convicts were sentenced before the change, including the option of parole.

Parole did, however, undergo an important change.

“Repeal of the prison cap in January 1996, and the passage of the Structured Sentencing Act in 1994, has allowed the Commission to begin a transition back to a true parole review process, where decisions are based on an offender’s threat to re-offend rather than ‘by the numbers,'” the commission said.

When the commission makes the decision to grant an inmate parole, the expectation is that they are not just doing it to free up a bed. Now, they are able to focus more on how likely it is that the inmate ends up behind bars again. If someone deemed more likely to commit crimes in the future, the commission is less likely to grant them parole.

The Mutual Agreement Parole Program, of which Ridgill was a part, is designed to provide a pathway to release for inmates convicted and sentenced under “Fair Sentencing” programs.

MAPP is described as a 3-way agreement among the parole commission, the Division of Prisons and the offender. To be part of the MAPP program, an inmate must show a desire to improve and take part in educational and training programs. There is a 3-year walk-up to release that, the MAPP website states, requires the inmate:

  • Must be in medium or minimum custody.
  • Not be subject to a detainer or pending court action that could result in further confinement.
  • Be infraction-free for a period of 90 days before being recommended.
  • If sentenced under the Fair Sentencing Act, is otherwise eligible for 270-day parole or community service parole.

Confused? Here’s the short answer

The long and short of it is this.

North Carolina used to offer parole under an older sentencing structure, but that changed in October 1994 when the sentencing structure was changed and parole was ended.

Anyone sentenced under the older structure still has the possibility of parole. Before granting parole, the parole board takes into serious consideration whether or not the inmate is likely to commit future crimes; if not, the inmate could be released early.

Nowadays, convicts are sentenced to a range of years. They are expected to serve the maximum number of years in that range, but they can earn credits through special programs and good behavior to whittle that number down. The minimum is the minimum no matter how many credits they earn.