Saturday, October 17, 2009

RALEIGH, N.C. | The violent North Carolina criminals to be freed later this month because of a court ruling and good conduct credits have racked up more than 250 infractions in prison for offenses such as fighting, weapon possession and theft.

Department of Correction records reviewed Friday by the Associated Press show the violations go as far back as the 1970s but also appear as recently as 2008, raising questions about whether the prisoners are reformed. Each one of the 20 inmates has at least two infractions, and combined they have a total of 256.

They have repeatedly been denied parole.

The inmates are scheduled to be released Oct. 29 because state courts have sided with one of the inmates, double murderer Bobby Bowden, that a 1970s law defined a life sentence as only 80 years. The state’s Fair Sentencing Act in 1981 included a retroactive provision essentially cutting all those sentences in half, and good behavior and other credits have shortened the sentences to the point that they are now complete.

Bowden had argued before the Court of Appeals in 2008 that he had accumulated 210 days of good conduct credit, 753 days of meritorious credit, and 1,537 days of gain-time credit. But the 60-year-old has also racked up 17 infractions in prison, including two for weapons possession, one for damaging property and several for disobeying orders.

Others have equally long rap sheets: William Baggett, a 60-year-old convicted of a 1976 murder in Sampson County, got a fighting infraction last year - his fifth fighting offense while behind bars. Kenneth Mathis, a 55-year-old felon who went to prison in 1976 after forcing a woman into the woods and raping her, has had three sex infractions in prison. He was accused in 2005 of assaulting an inmate with the intent to commit a sexual act.

State officials believe dozens more inmates convicted three decades ago could soon be eligible for release because of credits and the 80-year law that was in place for several years in the 1970s.

Jim Woodall, the district attorney in Orange County and president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, said many in the courts system believe that criminals become less active as they grow older. But he warned that nobody can be sure whether these inmates are ready to lead normal lives.

“A person who has been in prison for a violent crime, and has gotten infractions throughout their time incarcerated, that’s the best predictor for their future activity,” he said.

North Carolina inmates sentenced before structured sentencing came into effect in 1994 can rapidly knock time off their prison terms. Good conduct credit automatically reduces sentences by one day for every day inmates serve with good behavior and without an infraction. Gain-time credit goes to inmates who participate in work or program activities. Prisoners can also get meritorious credit for working under special conditions, such as overtime.

Infractions can remove some of those credits.

Mr. Woodall said a person sent to prison for 10 years before structured sentencing frequently completed their term in just a couple of years. The new laws lead to shorter sentences in the courtroom but less opportunity for inmates to accrue credits, something he supports.

Seven of the inmates set for release were once on death row. All but one of them have been convicted of murder or rape, including several who targeted young girls.

“Any of these convicts could be a danger to any man, woman and child in North Carolina,” said Thomas Bennett, executive director of the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network. “We have no assurance that these people have learned anything and changed.”

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