Bill would fund two jail inspectors to examine county jails across North Carolina

A handcuffed person in a jail cell

Photo: Getty Images

A bill before the legislature would pay for two full-time jail inspectors to examine county detention facilities across the state.

House Bill 380 would send $211,502 in recurring funds to the Department of Health and Human Services so the state could hire two new jail inspectors. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Carla Cunningham (D-Mecklenburg), references the need for the new hires in its title: “An Act to Appropriate Funds to Hire Two Additional Statewide Jail Inspectors Due to the Increased Time Required for Those Inspections Resulting from the Growing Complexity of Inmate Health and Safety Regulations.”

The proposal is currently before the Appropriations Committee.

According to a tweet from Disability Rights North Carolina, the funds are also included in Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget.

Inspectors visit county, municipal and regional jails twice each year. They investigate conditions of confinement, how incarcerated people are treated, and the maintenance of entry-level job standards for jail employees. They then write a report detailing whether the jail meets minimum standards set by state law, and submit it to the officials responsible for the jail.

Jails can be cited for a wide range of violations, such as a door not being up to code to the improper monitoring of incarcerated people who have been placed on suicide watch.

Disability Rights NC released a report last year which found that jails fail half of all state inspections, and that weak forms of enforcement allow dangerous conditions to persist for years. Those consequences can be disastrous for the incarcerated people entrusted to their care.

Notable prison system appropriations in the governor’s budget

Image: Adobe Stock

Gov. Roy Cooper released his budget last week, offering raises to teachers, increasing appropriations for the Department of Environmental Quality and funding the comprehensive remedial plan in the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit.

It also includes a substantial allocation of state dollars to pay for the new Department of Adult Correction, responsible for overseeing the roughly 30,000 people in the state’s 53 prisons and the 77,000 people on probation, parole or some other form of post-release supervision.

Governors’ budgets are mere suggestions, a policy statement more than an actual accounting of exactly how North Carolina will spend its money.

The legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, writes and approves the state budget. Cooper, a Democrat, will need to negotiate with budget leaders to have his priorities funded, but he enters this budget season with less leverage than in prior years, thanks to gains Republicans made in last year’s midterm elections.

Here are some of the highlights in Cooper’s budget relating to the Department of Adult Correction.

Re-entry efforts to help people coming home from prison

More than 40% of people who left prison or entered probation during the 2018 to 2018 Fiscal Year were rearrested at some point over those two years.

Cooper proposed $5,000,000 in recurring funds to supplement Pell Grant funding so that incarcerated people can complete higher education programs. Todd Ishee, the secretary for the Department of Adult Correction, told legislators earlier this session that education plays a critical role in helping ensure those who leave prison don’t come back someday.

The governor also would appropriate $10,000,000 to expand evidence-based rehabilitative programming within the state’s prisons. The money would go toward programs like “Moral Recognition Therapy” and “Thinking for a Change,” which staffers at the Office of the State Budget and Management wrote “have been proven to reduce recidivism amongst FTE participants, protecting public safety.”

Cooper also suggested allocating $1,500,000 in recurring money to increase funding for a program that provides short-term transitional housing to people leaving prison.

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Cooper launches Office of Violence Prevention as Republicans send gun reform bill to his desk

Gov. Roy Cooper

Last week Gov. Roy Cooper announced that he’d launch an Office of Violence Prevention, an initiative aimed at reducing violence and firearm misuse across North Carolina.

“All of us deserve to feel safe in our homes, our schools and our communities,” Cooper said in a statement. “This new office will help coordinate the efforts to reduce violent crime, tackle both intentional and careless gun injuries and deaths, and work to keep people safe.”

Cooper created the office via an executive order. That mandate lays out an array of stats justifying the office’s creation, including that an average of five North Carolinians die each day from gun violence, more than half of deaths caused by guns are suicides, and the presence of a firearm in an incident of domestic violence increases the risk of homicide by more than 500%. It also cites a national study finding that firearm deaths have overtaken car crashes as the leading cause of death for children.

Per Cooper’s order, the office will treat gun violence as a public health crisis, building a web of cooperation between local and state agencies to respond to violent crime and make communities safer across North Carolina. There will also be a Community Advisory Board, which will help develop the office’s strategic plan.

“Violence doesn’t just damage those who are directly impacted – it can be traumatic to the entire community,” Attorney General Josh Stein, who is also running for governor, said in a statement. “We can help break these devastating cycles of violence by investing in our communities, taking some common sense gun violence prevention measures, and strengthening partnerships between law enforcement and the people they serve.”

The Department of Public Safety has posted a job opening for an executive director on its website. The position pays between $85,000 and $121,507.

Cooper framed the office as part of his ongoing effort to reduce gun violence in North Carolina. He noted that he has vetoed bills that would weaken background checks required to buy firearms and has advocated for legislation to temporarily take guns away from people deemed by the courts to be a risk to themselves or others. That concept is one among many in gun reform bills floated by Democrats in the current legislative session, but those proposals have not advanced in the Republican-dominated legislature.

Republicans have sent their own “commonsense gun legislation” to Cooper’s desk, repealing a pistol permit required to buy a gun in North Carolina. Cooper has vetoed the proposal in the past, but Republicans might have the votes to overturn it this year thanks to gains they made in last year’s midterm elections.

Biden Administration launches pardon app for low-level marijuana convictions

Marijuana grows in Richmond, VA at a state licensed medical processor and dispensary. (Scott Elmquist/Style Weekly via the Virginia Mercury)

The Biden Administration has opened pardon applications for people convicted of low-level federal marijuana possession.

President Joe Biden announced in October that he would issue pardons for people convicted of simple possession of marijuana, affecting about 6,500 people convicted of the federal crime between 1992 and 2021.

A person can be charged with simple possession, a federal misdemeanor, if they have up to four ounces on them, resulting in a fine of at least $1,000 and could include prison time, although no one is currently serving time in federal prison solely for marijuana possession. Biden’s efforts were a modest attempt to help people convicted of a low-level crime to move on with their lives and reduce the stigma and collateral consequences of a criminal conviction.

“A pardon is an expression of the President’s forgiveness. It does not signify innocence or expunge the conviction. But it may remove civil disabilities — such as restrictions on the right to vote, to hold office, or to sit on a jury — that are imposed because of the pardoned conviction. It may also be helpful in obtaining licenses, bonding, or employment,” the website states.

You can qualify for the pardon if you:

  • were charged with or convicted of simple marijuana possession by a federal or D.C. Superior court on or before Oct. 6, 2022
  • were a U.S. citizen or were lawfully present in the country at the time of the crime
  • were a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident on Oct. 6, 2022

Click here to access the portal to apply for a pardon.

The pardons will only be available for people convicted in federal court. It does not impact those convicted in North Carolina courts of the same charge, though Gov. Roy Cooper has said his lawyers were looking at convictions for simple marijuana possession to determine whether there’s anything the executive branch can do — like issue a pardon — to follow the president’s lead.

Data presented to the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice showed that in 2019 there were 31,287 charges of possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana, the lowest-level misdemeanor in the state that could result in a fine of up to $200 but no jail time. Of those, 31,000 charges, 8,520 resulted in convictions. More than 60% of those convicted of the crime were not white.

That same year, there were 3,422 charges for possession of more than a half-ounce but less than 1.5 ounces of marijuana, punishable by up to 45 days imprisonment and a $200 fine. Of those, 1,909 cases resulted in convictions; 70% of those convicted were not white.

In their report issued a month later, the task force recommended legislators decriminalize marijuana possession of up to 1.5 ounces. Legislators did not act on this recommendation.

Organizers plan rally at the Capitol before Supreme Court hears voter ID, redistricting arguments

Organizers from across North Carolina will meet in downtown Raleigh Tuesday ahead of the state Supreme Court re-hearing two voting rights cases that a previous iteration of the high court decided last year.

Dubbed the “People’s Rally at the Capitol,” a group of advocacy organizations calling themselves “A People’s Coalition” will demonstrate to “sound the alarm about our state in emergency.”

This week the state Supreme Court will re-hear Harper v. Hall and Holmes v. Moore, two cases involving the state’s voter ID law and redistricting. The high court issued rulings on the two cases, authored by the then-Democratic majority, last year. The majority invalidated Republicans’ voter ID law and ruled that the state Senate map used in last year’s elections was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

Republicans regained control of the court after last year’s midterms. That new majority agreed to re-hear the cases, a move one of their Democratic colleagues called a “display of raw partisanship.”

The justices will hear oral arguments in the redistricting case at 12:45 on Tuesday. The arguments for the voter ID case will be Wednesday at 12:45. All Supreme Court arguments are live-streamed at this link.

Organizers for the rally said the “rare court action” to re-hear the cases, coupled with a number of bills pending in the legislature that would restrict voting access, could significantly impact how elections are run in North Carolina ahead of next year’s presidential election.

“Simply put, the future of fair, free, and accessible elections is on the line in the Tar Heel State,” the website reads.

Click here to register to attend the rally, which starts at 11 a.m. on Tuesday. It will also be live-streamed on Facebook.