Most people can get behind the idea that inmates should, if able, do some sort of work during their incarceration. By statute, “[i]t is declared to be the public policy of the State of North Carolina that all able-bodied prison inmates shall be required to perform diligently all work assignments provided for them.” G.S. 148-26. Inmate labor comes in many forms: work by jail inmates to benefit the government (described here); work inside an institution to accrue earned time (described here); work on a community work crew (G.S. 148-32.2); work for Correction Enterprises (which makes some really nice furniture and other products that any North Carolina government employee or retiree may purchase up to $2,500 of per year, G.S. 148-132); and work release. Today’s post is about work release.
Work release is the temporary release of a sentenced inmate to work on a job in the free community, outside the jail or prison, for which the offender is paid by the outside employer. Lots of good things can happen when an inmate is able to participate in work release. The inmate may be able to keep his or her regular job during the term of imprisonment. The sheriff or the prison system may be able to recoup the costs of the prisoner’s keep from the work release earnings. Victims may receive restitution and the inmate’s dependents may receive support payments from work release earnings. And many studies (like this one, for example) have shown a link between work release and lower recidivism rates. Data from the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission routinely show work release inmates as having a lower percentage of reincarceration within two years of release (16.2% for work release inmates, compared to 24.1% for all inmates released in fiscal year 2008/09, according to the 2012 recidivism report).
Unfortunately, the laws applicable to work release can be a little confusing.
Felonies. When a person is given an active sentence for a felony, the court may recommend work release. G.S. 15A-1351(f). This is merely a recommendation, but under G.S. 148-33.1, the Secretary of Public Safety “shall authorize immediate work-release privileges for any person serving a sentence not exceeding five years in the State prison system and for whom the presiding judge shall have recommended work release.” That requirement is subject to the caveats that the person must have suitable employment and that “custodial and correctional considerations would not be adverse to releasing the person without supervision in the free community.” G.S. 148-33.1(a). “Suitable employment” and “custodial and correctional considerations” are fleshed out in the prison policy on work release. The same policy document also notes that an inmate with a sentence in excess of five years is not eligible for work release until he or she is within three years of the maximum release date. E.0703(c)(1). There is no statute or rule governing court recommendations against work release, but my sense is that such recommendations are generally honored.
Misdemeanors. When a person is given an active sentence for a misdemeanor, the judge may recommend work release. With the consent of the defendant the judge may also order work release. G.S. 15A-1351(f). This mandatory order is an exception to the general separation-of-powers rule that a judge cannot require a custodian to administer a sentence in a particular way. If a judge orders work release for a misdemeanant, the sheriff is obliged to carry out the order—which is why such orders should not be entered without advance coordination between the judge, the lawyers, the sheriff or jail administrator, and, of course, the prospective work release employer. When work release is ordered for a misdemeanant, the order must include the date the work is to begin, the place of confinement, a provision that work release terminates if the offender loses his or her job, and a determination about the disbursement of earnings, as described below. G.S. 15A-1353(f).
Place of confinement. Sometimes a person’s prospective work-release job will not be convenient to his or her ordinary place of confinement. With that in mind, the prison system has authority to move inmates within the prison system to a more suitable facility, and to contract for the housing of work-release inmates in the county jails as provided in G.S. 148-22(a). When a misdemeanant is ordered to work release, the court may, notwithstanding any other provision of law, commit the defendant to a specific jail or prison facility in the county of the sentencing court to facilitate the arrangement. With prior consent the court may sentence the person to a jail or prison in another county. G.S. 15A-1352(d). (Note that this authority may be limited this year as part of a broader plan to remove misdemeanor offenders from the prison system. See Senate Bill 744, section 16C.1.(b).)
Probationers. In general, the court should not make any recommendation for work release at the time of sentencing when the defendant receives a suspended sentence and probation. Any such recommendation may be made at the time of revocation if the defendant’s probation is revoked. G.S. 148-33.1(i). It is a fairly common practice for a judge to order work release during a term of special probation (a split sentence), although there is no explicit statutory authorization for or prohibition against that. (The practice was noted without disapproval in State v. Stallings, 316 N.C. 535 (1986).) The General Statutes likewise do not spell out any rules for work release during a term of Confinement in Response to Violation, although it apparently is not allowed as a matter of policy for a CRV served in prison.
Money. An inmate’s work release earnings generally go to the custodian (DAC or the sheriff, as the case may be), who determines how the money will dispersed. The custodian or court, as appropriate, must determine an amount for things like travel expenses to and from work, child support, and money required to comply with any judgment rendered by the court. G.S. 148-33.1(f). A judge ordering work release should also set the amount to be deducted by the custodian for the costs of the prisoner’s keep. That amount should be based on the specific facility’s actual costs; it is not a per diem set by statewide statute or rule. For any prisoner ordered to an active sentence, the court shall consider recommending to the Secretary of Public Safety that restitution be made out of the defendant’s work release earnings. G.S. 15A-1340.36; 148-33.2.
Escape. If a person fails to return to prison from his or her work release assignment, it’s an escape—unless the person returns to confinement within 24 hours, as provided in G.S. 148-45.
Clearly work release requires some additional legwork and administrative wrangling. But given the benefits described above, it seems like it’s often worth the effort.