A Short Graphic Novel on How a Felony Sentence Is Served

I wrote a comic book about prison. Let me explain why.

The School of Government recently published its first graphic novel, In Prison: Serving a Felony Sentence in North Carolina. It’s available for purchase here. I wrote it along with Shane Tharrington, classification manager for North Carolina’s Division of Adult Correction. Jason Whitley, a talented artist and designer who works at UNC’s School of Pharmacy, illustrated it.

The book follows an inmate from the moment his felony sentence is pronounced to the day he completes post-release supervision. It shows where he will go (all inmates process through one of a half-dozen diagnostic centers before moving on to other destinations) and what he might do in terms of work or programs when he gets there. It explains how his stated sentence (10–21 months is the example I used) would typically translate into a real release date (just under 11 months, give or take).

Why a comic book? I get a lot of mail and phone calls from victims, inmates, and their families. It is clear to me from their questions that they don’t always have a clear sense of how a defendant’s sentence will play out in practice. Many people seem to be advised that inmates are always released at their minimum (many aren’t), and few—including inmates who pled guilty and asked for an active sentence—appear to be aware of the mandatory post-release supervision that will follow their incarceration (a “surprise” I wrote about here).

After over 20 years of Structured Sentencing, phrases like “6–17 months” roll off our collective tongues, and we mentally process the minimum and maximum together as a sort of gestalt: standard low-level felony. But you can imagine a defendant or victim looking at that span of months—each of which constitutes 30 days of liberty deprived or peace of mind, depending on your point of view—and thinking, “Which is it? 6 or 17? Because one of those numbers is, like, three times as big as the other.” This book is meant to offer an accessible explanation of what each number means, and what is most likely going to happen in reality.

Of course it’s not lost on me that a comic book is not right for every situation. A legal assistant in a prosecutor’s office talking to the victim of a serious sex crime or a lawyer advising a client charged with one might hesitate to slide a cartoon across the table to explain what might happen. But in certain situations—with young people in particular, perhaps—you may find it useful. It’s just another way of presenting the same legal information I have covered elsewhere, like on this blog, and in the short explanatory videos on my YouTube channel. I hope it doesn’t come across as tone deaf or ivory tower, because I try not to be that way.

In addition to Shane and Jason, I want to thank Kevin Justice of the School’s publications team for getting the book to press. It was printed by inmates at Nash Correctional Institution through Correction Enterprises. As you’d learn from the book, an inmate job like that would generally yield 9 days of earned time per month.

9 thoughts on “A Short Graphic Novel on How a Felony Sentence Is Served”

  1. I think this is a fantastic idea. The nuances of Structured Sentencing are constantly changing, and even attorneys and judges commonly misinterpret, or misapply, its provisions. Key features of the SSA, like the sentencing table, are hard for non-specialists to understand. Generally speaking, the population subject to the criminal justice system is disproportionately poorer, and less educated, than the average American. It is simply not realistic to expect a criminal defendant with an eighth-grade education to firmly grasp the consequences of accepting a guilty plea even if he is properly advised of those consequences in a 20-30 minute conversation with his attorney. I would also add
    that — albeit in very different contexts — comic book formats have been used by governments and missionary groups to communicate effectively with relatively unsophisticated populations (see, e.g., http://blogs.bl.uk/asian-and-african/2015/05/propaganda-and-ideology-in-everyday-life-chinese-comic-books.html)

    With that said, I think it is very unfortunate that this graphic novel is only available for purchase, and at $1.60 a unit, no less. Hopefully, printing at a lower quality would reduce the price per unit such that it can be distributed liberally at courthouses around the state. If printing costs could be reduced, I would suggest a lost-cost pilot program in a few small counties to determine the effectiveness of this outreach effort.

    • This is another amazing idea. Many lawyers don’t understand all of the sentencing laws; the lay person has no chance. Most attorneys just tell the client the number 10-21 months and send the defendant on to prison. While all the other law professors at other schools are writing useless law reviews that help nobody really in practice, UNC has their blogs and easy to reference materials for attorneys who aren’t academic but actually practice. Great Job as usual.

      • This system is so messed up. No one understands how much time some one is actually going to serve. I am surprised this has not been challenged as cruel and unusual. And it is time that lawyers are mandated to attend training to understand how this works. Then you have the topic of ASR which the DA in Raleigh has decided they are not going to entertain.

        • It could be worse. The Feds have no parole and inmates do virtually all their time. I would rather face 16-30 months than 30 for sure.

        • The system is easy to understand. You have a minimum and a maximum. You definitely have to do your minimum, but you can work your max down to your min. Your max is 120% of your min + whatever post release supervision you get. I received a sentence of 240-297 months. 240 is my min 240×20%=48 add that to 240 you get 288 months. I received 9 months PRS so 288+9=297 months.

    • IDS, the Conference of District Attorneys, DAC, and others have made bulk orders for use around the state. We are piloting distribution at certain prisons to get feedback from inmates.

  2. Mr Markham
    I was hoping to pick your brains about something. Is it possible i could send you an email to explain something? Thanks jo Theakston


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