Turning Back the Clock on Progress in Criminal Justice
If you want to know what might happen to criminal justice policy in North Carolina now that the Republicans are taking over the General Assembly, the recent controversy over the Racial Justice Act is a good place to start.
The State Republican Party sent out fliers before the election claiming that Democrats who voted for the Racial Justice Act were making it possible for death row inmates to leave prison and move into a voter's neighborhood. The flier was complete with a picture of a man breaking into a house with a crowbar.
The ad is a lie. The Racial Justice Act allows death row inmates to appeal their sentences based on statistical evidence of racial bias. If they win their appeal, their sentence is changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole. No one will be released from prison.
One of the Democrats targeted with the ad was House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, whose daughter was murdered in 1985. GOP Chair Tom Fetzer apologized to Holliman, but the Republican Party continued to send the flier to voters across the state accusing Democratic legislators of freeing death row inmates.
Republican legislative leaders remained silent about the blatantly false ad, though that's not a surprise considering their constant and ill-informed opposition to the law in the first place.
House Minority Leader Paul Stam even claimed that capital punishment is a deterrent, a notion that national studies have repeatedly shown to be false.
Stam and other conservatives also refuse to consider the growing body of research that shows that race plays a role in who receives a death sentence in North Carolina, with people convicted of killing a white person more likely to be sent to death row than people convicted of killing a person of color.
The use of fear in the flier about the Racial Justice Act was not much different from the distortions that come from the right-wing think tanks when lawmakers consider even minor changes to state sentencing laws to save hundreds of millions of dollars without compromising public safety.
No sentence is ever harsh enough, and no changes to sentencing guidelines can be considered, or lawmakers are attacked as being soft on crime. That lunacy reached a ridiculous high earlier this year when the Pope Civitas Institute criticized new UNC President Tom Ross for his nationally recognized work on revising North Carolina's sentencing laws in the 1990s.
Many conservative candidates are also railing about prisoner education programs and the cost of health care for people behind bars. None of that bodes well for any rational discussion of the state's criminal justice system, which is in serious need of reform.
Most conservatives have been adamantly opposed to North Carolina joining the rest of the country and trying most 16- and 17-year-olds in juvenile courts instead of the adult system. Studies show the change would mean fewer teenage offenders would commit another crime, saving the state money, giving the teens a second chance, and creating fewer crime victims.
One glimmer of hope is the bipartisan work around re-entry programs and recidivism that has helped states like Texas reduce its prison costs and give people a decent chance at turning their lives around.
But it's hard to imagine much momentum for any reasonable approach to criminal justice policy based on the statements by the conservative candidates this year and the hard right rhetoric of the think tanks that support them.
Instead, we may be headed backward in criminal justice policy. Smart on crime makes more sense than blindly tough on crime. But that's not enough when your goal is to keep scaring people for political gain.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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