The mission and function of the state's Parole Commission - now formally known as the N.C. Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission - has changed significantly since its inception.
The origins of parole in North Carolina can be traced to 1868, when the Governor was given the authority to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons in the state Constitution. The definition of pardon was expanded to include parole. There was no provision for an in-depth investigation into proposed release plans and there was no supervision upon release.
In 1935, the General Assembly provided for a Commissioner of Paroles to assist the Governor in all matters related to Executive Clemency. For the first time, a staff was authorized to make investigations and provide supervision to men and women released on parole. This method of operation continued until 1955.
In 1953 the General Assembly passed an act to amend the Constitution to establish a Board of Paroles with complete authority to grant, revoke and terminate parole. An amendment to the Constitution was passed by the voters and the forerunner of the present day Commission was established July 1, 1955. The Governor no longer had authority to grant parole after June 30, 1955.
Prior to 1981, the Commission maintained considerable discretion in releasing offenders with primary considerations being rehabilitation and public safety. The Fair Sentencing Act was the state's effort to reduce sentence disparity and to assist in controlling the prison population. North Carolina was not alone in its efforts, with other states also enacting laws anticipated to stabilize or even reduce the prison population. Such was not the case. Within two years, sentences lengthened, prisons became overcrowded and disparity in sentences approached pre-Fair Sentencing levels.
In 1983, the Legislature enacted Community Service Parole, which provided the Commission discretion in releasing individuals from select groups of offenders. This permitted the least dangerous offenders to be selected from these groups rather than indiscriminately reducing sentences for all offenders. The Commission proceeded in a rather cautious fashion and was quite conservative in releasing offenders on community service parole until 1987. The General Assembly passed the Prison Population Stabilization Act, better known as the prison cap, in 1987. Under the cap, the Commission was mandated with controlling the prison population at a level prescribed by law. The cap remained in effect until January 1, 1996. The parole process in North Carolina changed dramatically during the nine years the "cap" was in place. The Commission, out of necessity, chose to parole misdemeanants primarily as a class of offender rather than on the individual's threat to re-offend. Many thousands of these offenders were moved in and out of prison quickly under a system called parole and terminate, or P&T.
The passage of the Structured Sentencing Act in 1994 created more changes for the Commission, but had little impact on its day-to-day operations until 1996. Structured Sentencing eliminated parole as it existed under prior sentencing law. However, the new sentencing law did not alter the Commission's discretion for offenders whose crimes were committed prior to its enactment. This means the Commission will have the responsibility for making discretionary parole decisions for many years to come.
The Commission also has responsibilities related to cases under Structured Sentencing. The Commission sets the conditions of post-release supervision for those offenders eligible for supervision and has the authority to revoke post-release supervision for offenders who violate the conditions placed upon them at the time of release.
Repeal of the prison cap in January 1996, and the passage of the Structured Sentencing Act in 1994, has allowed the Commission to begin a transition back to a true parole review process, where decisions are based on an offender's threat to re-offend rather than "by the numbers."
The Justice Reinvestment Act, passed by the legislature in 2011, requires post-release supervision for all felons leaving prison. Felons convicted of class B1 through E felons receive 12 months of supervision and class F through I felonies receive 9 months of post-release supervision. Some felons with registration requirements receive 5 years of post-release supervision. This change dramatically increases the workload for the commission, which sets post-release supervision conditions for these offenders. In response to the Justice Reinvestment Act, the Parole Commission increased its number of analysts to handle the caseload, and a fourth commissioner was added in 2012.