NC New Year's Resolution: Overhaul the state's cruel and archaic criminal sentencing system

Published January 5, 2023

By Rob Schofield

Gov. Roy Cooper delivered some welcome holiday presents recently to a handful of people who had served long sentences in state prison. Six were granted clemency and an early release, while four others who’d previously served long sentences received full pardons.

All 10 appear to have turned their lives around and more than paid their debts to a state in which criminal penalties – particularly those that relate to drug possession and sales – are incredibly severe.

As welcome as the governor’s actions were, however, the hard fact remains that they don’t go anywhere close to far enough.

North Carolina doesn’t have the harshest or cruelest prison/criminal justice system in the world (or even in the United States), but as a 2021 report from the Prison Policy Initiative made clear, it’s much closer to the bottom than the top.

At the time, North Carolina was incarcerating 617 people for every 100,000 residents, the report said. And while several states had even more dreadful numbers – in Louisiana and Mississippi, the number was well over 1,000 – North Carolina’s total still dwarfed the rates in all other modern nations.

In Argentina, the number was 230. In Canada, 104. In Denmark, 72.

A giant elephant in the room in this story is race.

A 2021 study conducted by researchers at a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, The Sentencing Project, reported that Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of white Americans; North Carolina was one of 12 states in which more than half the prison population is Black. African Americans make up only 21% of North Carolina’s population.

The ways in which racial bias works to produce these kinds of appalling statistics are numerous, but not especially mysterious. A Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice that Cooper established in June of 2020 studied these issues in great detail and issued a lengthy report later that year that listed several, including policing and prosecutorial practices, the “school-to-prison pipeline,” obsolete drug laws, and discriminatory sentencing and incarceration practices. Its overarching conclusion: “North Carolina’s criminal justice system is afflicted with longstanding systemic racism.”

Another huge factor is poverty. Not only are poor North Carolinians of all races much more likely to find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system, they’re also much less well-equipped to extricate themselves from it.

Welcome as they were, Cooper’s recent grants of clemency and pardon help illustrate this fact.

Think about it: People who are incarcerated don’t generally obtain such extraordinary relief on their own. It almost always takes a concerted effort by a network of supporters – family, friends, lawyers – to gain the attention necessary to win a grant of pardon or clemency.

And while many of the close to 30,000 individuals North Carolina currently incarcerates in overcrowded, understaffed, frequently dehumanizing and often deadly facilities undoubtedly deserve the kind of second chance the governor provided to the lucky 10, the overwhelming majority lack the family and legal support to pursue such a request.

Indeed, the state prison/criminal justice system has long been replete with stories of individuals who have become mired within it unjustly – often for years or decades – simply because they lacked the resources, support or intellectual capacity to draw attention to their plight.

Such situations are especially common in low-wealth rural areas where poor criminal defendants may have received ineffective counsel at trial and lack any effective means of seeking redress.


It’s for all of these reasons and others that, for the third straight year, advocates from a coalition calling itself “Decarcerate Now NC” stood vigil outside the Governor’s mansionthroughout the month of December calling persuasively for a much more extensive clemency program.

As the group noted in an open letter it delivered to the governor at the start of the vigil, while the recommendations of Cooper’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice are on point and welcome, the sad reality is that they have mostly fallen on deaf ears when it comes to state policymakers who are in a position to make a real difference.

And while the group “gets” the fact that this is clearly not all the governor’s fault – Republican legislative leaders who control the state’s lawmaking agenda remain aggressively and unrepentantly attached to the obsolete and racially charged “get tough on crime” policies of the late 20th century – they also note that there is still much that Cooper can do with the executive powers he enjoys during the final two years of his governorship. See, for instance, outgoing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s recent decision to commute the sentences of 17 individuals on Death Row.

The bottom line: Nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century, North Carolina continues to maintain a deeply flawed and cruel prison/criminal justice system that, in many ways, has changed little since the demise of slavery.

Surely, we can and must do better. And surely, a caring and thinking leader like Gov. Roy Cooper can and should use the formidable tools at his disposal to commence such an effort in earnest in the New Year.