RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Advocates for criminal justice reform on Monday called on Gov. Roy Cooper (D) to take further steps to reduce the state’s prison population, beginning a month-long vigil outside the Executive Mansion.
“As he begins to pardon turkeys, we would like for him to remember there are over 30,000 people incarcerated in North Carolina prisons that desperately need his attention,” said Kristie Puckett, senior project manager for Forward Justice.
The Decarcerate Now NC coalition sent Cooper a letter calling for the immediate release of certain prisoners including those who are elderly, ill, in prison for “technical parole violations” and those who were convicted as children. They also called on him to commute all death sentences.
Throughout the month, the group will hold marches and demonstrations highlighting issues such as racial disparities of those incarcerated in the state’s prisons.
Puckett urged Gov. Cooper to use his clemency power to release more people from prison and to grant pardons.
Groups involved in the vigil over the next several weeks began holding these events in 2020 after Cooper won re-election. At the time, Cooper had never exercised his power to commute sentences or pardon people.
In late 2020, he issued pardons of innocence to five people who were convicted of crimes they did not commit. More recently at the end of 2022, Cooper in one day commuted sentences for six people and issued four pardons of forgiveness.
His office noted two of those commutations stemmed from recommendations by the Juvenile Sentence Review Board, which Cooper established to look at cases of people sentenced to prison when they were minors.
“Cases for clemency or pardon follow an intensive review of many elements, including outcomes in court, circumstances of the crimes, the sentences, records in prison, victim impacts and more. The Office of the Governor, including the offices of Executive Clemency and General Counsel, carefully reviews all petitions for clemency,” said Jordan Monaghan, spokesperson for Gov. Cooper.
The governor’s office did not address whether he’s expected to use his clemency power again before the end of 2023.
This year’s vigil comes as the state is grappling with a historically high vacancy rate in state government jobs, including in prisons.
In a recent interview with CBS 17, Stephanie Freeman, deputy secretary of the NC Dept. of Adult Corrections, said the vacancy rate in the department had improved slightly as it dropped under 28%. But, some facilities are still facing vacancy rates as high as 40% to 50%.
“In the last, I would say probably three to four months or so, we started seeing some signs that we were actually hiring more people than we separated,” Freeman said. “Some of the wardens that I’ve talked to out in the field, they have felt like, at least for their facilities, they’ve seen some really positive signs and have turned a corner.”
Puckett said she’s concerned about the safety of both state employees and prisoners with the vacancy rate remaining as high as it is.
According to data from the NC Dept. of Adult Corrections, there are 31,148 people currently serving time in the state’s prisons. A report earlier this year by the NC Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission projects that over the next decade the prison population will increase by 12%. This follows a sharp decline during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That just creates an experience for people that is less humane and less favorable than we’ve ever seen before,” said Puckett. “Adding more people to places that are bursting at the seams with very little staff is just a recipe for disaster.”