Imagine this: You have been tried and convicted of a serious felony in North Carolina. You are facing an extended period of time in prison—at least five years. You’ve already heard stories about how unpleasant life can be in confinement, and—even worse—because of your crime, you’re not going to a minimum custody facility.

After a few months, you want to get out. Desperately. Soon, if not immediately.

You are clinging to two elements that give you hope. You know that you have the right to seek a pardon for your offense, and you have the right to ask for parole.

We don’t want to quash your last hopes, but... No, pardons and parole don't work the way you think they do.

North Carolina Parole Procedures

Nobody applies for parole in North Carolina. If you are eligible, it happens automatically.

Technically, parole was abolished when North Carolina switched to its current structured sentencing procedures in 1994. The old parole system now only applies to convicts whose crimes were committed before October 1, 1994. In those cases, a state commission reviews the inmate's record at least annually, communicates with victims of the inmate's crimes, and issues a decision whether to offer parole. 

As part of the Fair Sentencing Act of 1981, inmates with felony convictions serving 18 months or longer must be released on parole 90 days before their sentence expires. This parole is automatic unless the inmate refuses—and almost everyone accepts. Inmates then report to post-release supervision for the following six months.

Under the rules of the Structured Sentencing Act, all inmates must serve all the minimum time for their sentences or 85 percent of the maximum time, whichever is longer. Once the inmate has served the required length of time, he is discharged. Inmates who were convicted of Class F through Class I felonies are released into the community with no restrictions. Offenders with felony convictions from Class B1 through Class E class are released, but they will be assigned post-release supervision.

Post-release supervision is similar to what most other jurisdiction thinks of as "parole." The released inmate is assigned a supervising official to monitor his progress reintegrating with society. Depending on his case specifics, he may face restrictions on where he can travel or what he can do, or may be required to attend substance-abuse prevention meetings, anger management therapy, or other counseling.

If you were hoping for parole to be suddenly granted to you, you can stop hoping. Unless you were convicted of a crime that happened back in the 1990s (or earlier), you can calculate exactly when you will be released by looking at the maximum and minimum sentences for your crime.

Pardons in North Carolina

The office of the Governor of North Carolina has the power to issue pardons and commutations for people convicted of crimes under state law. Both of these are forms of executive clemency. Once the governor has issued a pardon or commutation, there is no other body that can overrule this decision.

  • Commutations are given to people currently in prison. They can reduce the length of the sentence by a specific period—for example, by ten years or by six months—or reduce it to "time served," which means the inmate will be released immediately. Commutations are most often awarded when there is sufficient evidence the prisoner is confined unjustly (but the legal system will not release him), or the sentence is unfairly harsh, or there are hardship circumstances (e.g., the prisoner is dying of an incurable disease) that may justify early release.
  • Pardons forgive the crime. As a rule, pardons are generally issued only to people who have already served their sentences and have led an exemplary life for at least five years after release from prison. The pardon does not erase the person's criminal record, but it does attach an official forgiveness notation to it. Pardons are very rarely granted. Although 60 to 80 requests for pardons are sent to the governor every year, only two requests were granted in the 2001-2007 period.

If you're counting on executive clemency for an early release from prison, your hope is probably misplaced. Pardons aren't granted while someone is still in confinement. Commutations are rarely offered, and in recent years they have been largely used to reduce a death sentence to life in prison.

Stay out of prison if you can't do the time

Your best option is, of course, not to go to prison in the first place. At Speaks Law Firm, our Wilmington criminal defense lawyers are highly experienced in getting the best available deal for our clients, which often includes getting felony charges reduced to misdemeanors or bargaining for charges with minimal prison time.

If you are facing jail or prison if convicted, it's in your own interest to call Speaks Law at 910-341-7570 locally, or toll-free at 877-593-4233. Call today so we can begin preparing your legal defense strategy immediately.

R. Clarke Speaks
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Trial Lawyer and Founder of Speaks Law Firm, P.C.
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