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National outrage: hard cores going out the door

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Every couple of months, North Carolina makes national news for the dysfunctional way the state handles violent criminals. Right on schedule, the state made national news again last week for a court ruling releasing a few dozen rapists, murderers and pedophiles, who will be set free from state prisons Oct. 29. State courts agreed they'd served their sentences according to an interpretation of an old law that defined life sentences as only 80 years long. With time off for good behavior, they now qualify for release.

A soap-opera-style episode of teeth gnashing then ensued as Democratic state leaders and the governor claimed to be appalled. Their performance was comical given what they've been up to since mid-decade, during which time they've held elected state leadership positions:

• Passed a state senate amendment in 2005 requiring the state prison system to enroll a minimum of 20 percent of parole-eligible inmates in the Mutual Agreement Parole Program, no matter how violent their crimes. If they successfully complete the program, they're released. Since only criminals convicted before 1994 are eligible for parole, it's the most violent criminals who are left -- those the parole commission has turned down again and again for release -- that now must be let out. Since 2005, the average number of first-degree murderers paroled annually has more than quadrupled to 27, WRAL reported. Among those paroled who might not otherwise have been is Edward Earl Williams, 58, who stabbed a six-year-old to death in 1968. Legislative leaders could vote to reverse this any time they choose.

• Slashed sentences for criminals, including violent felons, earlier this year. The story was that North Carolina was incarcerating too many criminals -- despite North Carolina having the fewest prison beds per capita in the South according to a recent Pew study -- and had to shorten sentences to save money. State leaders sold this as shorter sentences for low-level criminals, a line the media was willing to parrot without looking too closely at the details, which was unfortunate because the shortened sentences also apply to violent criminals, including sex offenders. The final bill that Gov. Beverly Perdue signed shaved an average of three years off the sentence of a first-degree rapist with few priors and will take years off the sentences of other types of violent felons as well.

• So underfunded the parole and probation system that many parole and probation officers are still carrying more than twice the legal limit of cases allowed by law 18 months after the problem was first reported. According to reports in Raleigh's News & Observer, more than 500 parolees and probationers, many of whom had violated the terms of their release with no penalty from the overburdened corrections system, went on to kill in recent years. After the high-profile murders of UNC-Chapel Hill Student Body President Eve Carson and Duke University doctoral student Abhijit Mahato by probationers who could have been in prison but instead got lost in the system, state leaders said things would change. They changed rules making officers' jobs easier, but left the system dramatically underfunded, slashing $2.5 million in additional funding out of the final budget despite finding more than $20 million for a pier/aquarium tourist attraction the governor wanted just months before. The enormous probation and parole caseload likely contributed to shoddy parole work that resulted in the failure to detain habitual felon Patrick Burris, who despite violating the terms of his parole went on to murder five people in South Carolina in July.

• Earlier this year, state legislative leaders launched another attack on habitual felon laws that keep North Carolina's most prolific criminals off the streets. They attempted to pass legislation that would have gutted the state's "three-strikes" laws and shaved years off the sentences of those like spree killer Patrick Burris. Had the changes been in place, Burris, who had more than 30 arrests, wouldn't have been eligible for habitual felon status and would have served mere months, rather than the eight years he got before he was released and went on a killing spree. Once again, Democratic leaders tried to sell this as a way to keep small-time drug offenders from getting heavy sentences. Unfortunately, it would have also led to months rather than years in prison for repeat burglars, auto thieves and other repeat felons who make their living preying on law-abiding people and often go on to commit more violent crimes. Fortunately, the measure didn't pass, but it's high on Democratic leaders' priority lists for next session.

• Passed the Racial Justice Act, essentially a racial quota system for the death penalty that has nothing to do with a defendant's guilt or innocence. Death-row inmates can have their sentences commuted to life in prison if they can use statistics to prove those of their color are more likely to wind up on death row, regardless of whether they were actually discriminated against in their cases and even if they admit they committed the crime. State legislators set aside millions they could have spent on the starving prison system -- they shut down seven prisons to save money this year -- or probation and parole system so death row inmates could use the money in their race-based appeals.

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