RALEIGH, N.C. - For the first time since taking office in 2017, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper exercised his clemency powers to release people from prison. Upon the recommendation from the state’s Juvenile Sentence Review Board, Cooper granted clemency to three people, including April Barber, who was given consecutive life sentences for first-degree murder at the age of 15 in 1991.
“Today’s clemency order is incredibly important for April, her son, and the many friends and supporters who have called for her release for years,” said Kristie Puckett Williams, Deputy Director for Engagement and Mobilization and Statewide Campaign for Smart Justice Manager for the ACLU of North Carolina. “Her case and life are important, as are the many other people who are serving long sentences in North Carolina prisons for convictions they received as children. Granting clemency to someone despite their past is a tremendous stride and demonstrates the possibility of making even more progress in the days ahead. Clemency is a valuable and underutilized tool that should be used to correct longstanding injustices and perpetual over-incarceration.”
There are four members of the North Carolina Juvenile Sentence Review Board, which reviews certain sentences for North Carolinians who were under the age of 18 when tried and sentenced in adult criminal court. April Barber's clemency marks the first time Governor Cooper has acted on one of the JSRB's recommendations.
“Today’s clemency actions are consistent with U.S. Supreme Court decisions that found that ‘children are constitutionally different from adults in their levels of culpability,” said Daniel Bowes, Director of Policy & Advocacy for the ACLU of North Carolina, while quoting the Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana. “Today’s executive action is also consistent with recent state legislative efforts that recognize the importance of not treating children as adults within the criminal legal system.”
In recent years, the N.C. General Assembly raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction, which resulted in 16-and-17-year-olds as adults no longer being automatically charged as adults for most offenses. Additionally, former Greensboro Police Chief and current state representative John Faircloth (Guilford-R) was one of four Republican primary sponsors of HB 424, which would allow people convicted of first-degree murder under age 18 to be considered for parole after 25 years imprisonment.
“Clemency is an under-utilized and critical tool in the fight against mass incarceration and towards recognizing the power of redemption and second chances. The ACLU commends Governor Cooper for today’s announcements, and we welcome and encourage thoughtful partnership on more that can be done to reunite people with their families and communities,” said Udi Ofer, Deputy National Political Director and Director of the Justice Division at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Even with the advancements made in recent years and through the Governor’s first act exercising his clemency powers today, more steps need to be taken to address the disparate application of long sentences for juveniles in North Carolina. In May 2021, the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus sent a letter to the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys criticizing the organization’s opposition to eliminating juvenile life without parole sentences. In the letter, the Caucus noted racial disparities among children sentenced to life without parole in North Carolina, 90.5% of whom are children of color, with 80% being Black children.
“We are moving in the right direction, but progress is slow. The additional harm created by incremental change has real impacts on people’s lives,” said Kristie Puckett Williams. “The time is now to push for transformational change when it comes to children who enter the criminal legal system. Every day we delay takes away more time from people’s lives. North Carolinians expect lawmakers to keep working and finding solutions that will protect our children and families from unfair, uneven, and unjust treatment under the law.”
In 2020, the ACLU launched The Redemption Campaign – Embracing Clemency, a nationwide effort to liberate 50,000 people from state prisons. Through state-level campaigns that push governors to use their existing clemency powers in new and transformational ways. The ACLU of NC’s efforts focus on continually pressing elected officials to confront mass incarceration and racial injustice by using the powers they hold, including granting commutations to large groups of people who are unjustifiably imprisoned. More information about the ACLU of NC’s coalition efforts is available at decarceratenownc.com.