WILMINGTON — District Attorney Ben David said he applauds the N.C. Department of Public Safety’s decision to release approximately 500 prisoners from the state’s total prison population of 37,000 inmates.
The NC Department of Public Safety (DPS) took the “extraordinary measure” to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus in prison facilities across the state. More than 35 inmates among six separate facilities have tested positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, along with 20 staff among 10 separate facilities “who have self-reported positive tests,” according to the department.
Prisoners who will be released are at a higher risk of contracting the virus and fall within a narrow scope — and will not include any who have been convicted of a violent crime. Those being reviewed for release into probationary programs include:
- Pregnant offenders
- Offenders aged 65 and older with underlying health conditions
- Female offenders aged 50 and older with health conditions and a release date in 2020
- Offenders aged 65 and older with a release date in 2020
- Offenders already on home leave with a release date in 2020
- Offenders on work release with a release date in 2020
“That’s who’s getting out right now. It is not everybody else: rape, murder, or armed robbery; drug traffickers — all the folks that we spend our time keeping the community safe from will be remaining in the Department of Adult Corrections,” David said.
Victim notification — for inmates who have a victim in their case — is occurring before their release, according to David.
David called the state’s decision a balancing act of keeping the community safe from crime while also looking out for prisoners’ rights.
“Much like a cruise ship where there’s nowhere to go, we can see how quickly a virus can spread in confined spaces, and releasing the pressure valve even a little bit can really help,” David said at a small press conference in the main lobby of the courtroom late Monday afternoon, hours after the state announced the release. “Everyone has rights, including people who have been convicted.”
And like cruise ships, prisons and jails across the nation have faced an increasing risk of becoming so-called ‘petri dishes’ where the virus can spread quickly. According to David, even reducing 3% of the state’s prisoners “will have profound impacts on the number of bed spaces available in infirmaries.”
There has also been a reduction of inmates in the New Hanover County and Pender County detention facilities. According to David, New Hanover has released 100 inmates while Pender County’s inmate population has been reduced by 30 percent.
The state’s new initiative follows a total of 2,200 inmates released in March, according to the department. Since January, more than 6,900 inmates have been released from DPS detention facilities across the state — a 10% increase compared to the same time period in 2019.
“In March alone, more than 300 offenders originally scheduled for release in April, May or June, were transitioned to post-release supervision by completing their minimum sentence,” according to the DPS.
Over the past week, the N.C. Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission released more than a dozen pregnant females to community supervision.
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