On a recent weekend, a convict from Johnston County was reportedly spotted playing golf during a visit home from prison.
Across the state in Macon County on the same weekend, Scott Keith Quillen, serving a life sentence for murder, was also back home, where he could check the website he has set up to rally support for his parole during the nearly two years of weekend visits he has been allowed.
Also that weekend, Raymond Cook, the former Raleigh doctor convicted of killing a young dancer in a collision in 2009 while speeding and intoxicated, was back home. So was Cassie Scott Johnson, now in her 60s; she has been serving a life sentence since 1980 for killing a Raleigh police officer . As was Robert Bruce Pollard, a Johnston County man convicted of second-degree murder and accessory after the fact to manslaughter in a double killing in 1997.
They were among 149 felons – most convicted of far more mundane crimes – allowed to go home for a mid-June weekend under a state prison policy that allows some minimum-security inmates without disciplinary problems to make home visits within a year of their release in order to help them transition back into society. Convicted murderers, like any other offender, can serve out their terms in minimum-security prisons if they are not considered to be escape risks or dangerous. Those serving life sentences are still eligible for parole at some point, unless their sentence excluded that possibility.
The transition concept is widely accepted as important to help prevent ex-convicts from returning to prison. More than 2,000 North Carolina felons have been allowed home visits since 2008.
But North Carolina’s prosecutors say until now they had no idea such a large number of inmates was being allowed to leave prison before their sentences were up, without any notice to their victims or prosecutors. They have begun a campaign to end the policy.
“From a prosecution standpoint, we tell our victims and victims’ families these criminals who are sent to prison will serve every day of the minimum sentence, and that’s not being done ... ,” Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr. said in an interview Thursday.
In fact, the district attorneys got interested after someone mentioned to a staff member in the prosecutors’ organization that they saw, on a golf course, one of the two lawyers who were sent to prison after being convicted in 2010 of altering court records in Johnston County. Which one of the former lawyers – Chad Lee or Lee Hatch– isn’t clear. Both were on home visits that weekend, according to the records.
The N.C. Conference of District Attorneys began looking into it, and Berger, the incoming president of the group, asked the Civitas Institute to research the policy and determine who was taking weekend leaves. Civitas analyzed the program based on documents produced in a public-records request; the documents were shared with The News & Observer.
Armed with those numbers, Berger sent a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory last week asking him to end the program immediately.
The Berger-Civitas campaign picked up steam on Wednesday when state Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Republican lawyer from Wilmington and a high-profile advocate for law-and-order legislation who once ran for attorney general, spoke on the Senate floor to say he hoped the governor would quickly agree. If not, he said, legislators should act.
“This is disturbing and shocking, and it is something that needs to be seriously addressed,” Goolsby said in an interview Thursday.
Goolsby said he was confident McCrory would end the policy. But on Wednesday, the governor’s administration was defending the program.
“For over three decades, the home leave program has allowed for inmates who are nearing release to re-establish family relationships and community socialization in preparation for their transition back into the community,” Commissioner of Adult Correction David Guice said in a statement released by the Department of Public Safety. “Every inmate is carefully screened and selected and undergoes a thorough investigation before admission into the program.”
The governor’s office had no further comment on Thursday.
Prison transition programs are generally considered beneficial for everyone.
Criminal defense attorney Joseph B. Cheshire V of Raleigh said the program helps ex-offenders successfully return to society without ending up back in prison and costing taxpayers more money.
“To oppose this program is simply to demagogue and shows a callous disregard for anything that offers rehabilitative potential in order to simply advance a personal political agenda,” Cheshire said.
Like the prosecutors, Bill Rowe, general counsel and director of advocacy for the N.C. Justice Center, said he was not familiar with the program, either.
But, he said, he is an advocate of programs that help people with criminal records reintegrate into society. He said prisons and department of correction programs should combine a punitive element with rehabilitation.
“Obviously we want to correct whatever bad behavior put them there,” Rowe said. “But also we want to make sure they never come back.”
Rowe said well over 1 million people in North Carolina have criminal records. After arresting them, convicting them and punishing, Rowe said the state should also focus on helping them be productive in their communities.
Goolsby says ending the program wouldn’t leave released inmates without help. The Justice Reinvestment Act enacted last session puts them under nine months of supervision by a parole or probation officer, presumably with support services.
“This is not just dumping people on the street anymore,” Goolsby said. “I agree that was not the way to do it.”