A March 10, 2022, press release from North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s office stated the governor has commuted the sentences of three people convicted of crimes as juveniles. The commutations — the first of their kind — were recommended by the Juvenile Sentence Review Board, which examines the individual cases, length of sentences, records in prison, and “readiness to succeed” upon release. The Board also looks at factors related to rehabilitation and demonstrated maturity, including good behavior and infractions records.
The Board was established by Executive Order last year following a change to North Carolina law that raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 16- and 17-year-olds. Commutation applications are reviewed by the Office of Executive Clemency, the Office of the General Counsel, and the Governor.
Recent studies of developmental psychology show juveniles and adults possess “fundamental differences” in their brain chemistry, such as susceptibility to emotional and behavioral controls. Under some state and federal laws, these “differences” necessitate an age-dependent sentencing scheme.
“North Carolina law continues to change to recognize that science is even more clear about immature brain development and decision making in younger people,” Cooper said. “As people become adults, they can change, turn their lives around, and engage as productive members of society.”
The Board also comes as a recommendation from the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice (“TREC”). According to the press release, more than “80 percent of people committed to North Carolina prisons for crimes they committed as juveniles are people of color.”
The three people whose sentences were commuted are: April Leigh Barber, 46, who served 30 years in prison for the murders of her grandparents at the age of 15; Joshua McKay, 37, who served 20 years for the murder of Mary Catherine Young at the age of 17; and Anthony Willis, 42, who served 26 years for the murder of Benjamin Franklin Miller at the age of 16. All three people were consistently employed, participated in programming, and/or completed college degrees during their incarceration. Upon their release, the three people will be under post-release supervision by Community Corrections at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
“Young people are capable of tremendous transformation,” said Marcia Morey, chair of the Juvenile Sentence Review Board. “These commutations of former youth are a step towards a more humane criminal justice system that recognizes the value of rehabilitation and second chances. The Board has gone through a careful and deliberative process to achieve this result.”
People who want their sentences reviewed can submit petitions, which are available to those who are eligible for Board consideration. Pro bono legal help has been offered by North Carolina law schools and advocates.
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