Justice Department Takes First Step to Help Wrongly Incarcerated in North Carolina

August 14, 2012 1:37 pm

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RALEIGH – The U.S. Department of Justice has provided new guidelines to U.S. attorneys for how to handle the cases of federal inmates in North Carolina who remain incarcerated even though, under a 2011 court ruling, they are either innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted or eligible for a reduced sentence. The change in policy came on August 9, two days after the American Civil Liberties Union and its North Carolina affiliate submitted a letter to top Justice Department officials asking them to immediately take action to identify and assist potentially thousands of inmates whose sentences were affected under an August 2011 ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. Simmons.

The Department’s partial guidance instructs U.S. attorneys to waive certain arguments that, in the year since Simmons was decided, it has been using to bar or delay relief for people who were unjustly convicted under pre-Simmons law. But the government has yet to agree to waive those arguments for people who were unjustly sentenced—sometimes to huge mandatory minimum or “career offender” sentences—under pre-Simmons law.

“This is an encouraging first step, but much more has to be done to obtain justice for those who were wrongly incarcerated,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation. “This new policy does not help all of the thousands of inmates whose sentences could be affected by the Simmons decision. We continue to urge the Justice Department to take a proactive stance toward identifying and assisting all those who may be unjustly languishing in prison.”

A USA Today investigation published in June found more than 60 men who are in prison for violating federal gun possession laws, even though the 2011 decision in Simmons means that it was not federal crime for them to have a gun. A preliminary review conducted by the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, found that more than 3,000 federal prisoners are potentially innocent or entitled to a reduced sentence under Simmons.

Read the letter the ACLU submitted to the Justice Department, as well as a government motion that is evidence of the Aug. 9 policy change, online at acluofnc.org.

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