Last week, Governor Perdue expressed her “disgust” with the courts of this State, because she lost yet another battle in her effort to keep a handful of “life sentence” prisoners in jail. The governor’s position is disingenuous at best; political grandstanding at worst. North Carolina courts are not to blame for this situation. Rather, the courts have done exactly what many people think they should do: interpret the law, and not create new ones. In this post, I would like to explain what parties are properly to blame.
First, a little background is necessary.
This controversy started with an opinion from the N.C. Court of Appeals, State v. Bowden (available here, it is a short opinion). In Bowden, the Court looked at the sentencing law by which Bobby Bowden, a murderer, was convicted in 1975; and observed that the law during that time was that a life sentence was only 80 years. The State admitted that Bowden was allowed to have credits applied toward his life sentence (bottom of pg. 5 of link), and therefore the Court sent the case back to the trial court to determine the appropriate number of credits to apply to Bowden’s sentence. The N.C. Supreme Court agreed.
When the case returned to the trial court, Judge Ripley Rand determined that the Department of Corrections did not make any special rules as to the credits to be applied to these particular prisoners (story here and Judge Rand’s order here). As a result, he decided that these prisoners should be allowed to have credits applied toward their sentences, and that both Bowden and another prisoner were entitled to release several years ago. Judge Rand’s decision again went to the N.C. Court of Appeals on a writ of supersedeas (basically, the State was asking the Court to “suspend” the enforcement of Judge Rand’s order to release the prisoners). The N.C. Court of Appeals eventually denied the State’s request, and the N.C. Supreme Court is now preparing to hear arguments ONLY on the issue of whether credits should be applied (see here).
Now, to my issues with the governor’s position.
1. Governor Perdue, in general, has not shown that she actually cares about the victims and their families. Shortly after expressing her “disgust” with the court system last week, she had dinner at the governor’s mansion with numerous convicted felons –at least one of which was found guilty of first AND second degree murder (story here). The obvious hypocrisy in the governor’s actions shows me that she is just embellishing an emotional story for ulterior motives (for example, perhaps it is an effort to shore up her dismal approval ratings).
2. The governor hopefully is aware that courts very rarely create law, and when they do, it is only by interpreting existing law such as the Constitution, a statute, or the common law (a good example being school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education). Generally speaking, the General Assembly writes the laws, and the courts enforce or interpret them. Courts do sometimes create law as explained above, however, policy is set by the legislature and enabled by statutes. In criminal actions, the government is in charge of enforcing those statutes.
In this case, the Court was merely trying to interpret an old statute (quoted in the opinion on pg. 4), which was created by the legislature to alleviate prison overcrowding in the 1970’s. The General Assembly could have reduced sentences for any number of crimes: low-level drug offenses, traffic convictions, property crimes, etc. to deal with the problem. Instead, the legislature, in their infinite wisdom, decided to reduce the life sentences of extremely violent criminals without installing any restrictions. The court was not at liberty to invent some new law in order to make sure that these criminals were not released. They were bound, and held correctly, that the law defining “life” as 80 years was only that amount of time.
3. This means that the only people to blame are the General Assembly and, surprise, the governor’s office. Even though Governor Perdue did not enact the law in issue, her office is partly to blame. I suspect that part of the source of her indignity toward the courts is an effort to deflect this simple fact.
I find the governor’s comments suspect in both their timing and ferocity, and I hope that other people, especially the voting kind, will see through her manipulation. If you are outraged by the release of these criminals, then please blame the appropriate parties, and do not allow Governor Perdue utilize your valid frustrations for her own political gain.