According to a story on WRAL, “anyone convicted of a prior crime punishable by more than a year in prison cannot legally own a gun. For about two decades, federal prosecutors in North Carolina applied that law using the worst-case scenario, meaning a defendant’s actual sentence didn’t matter. Prosecutors used the theory that a defendant was guilty of a federal weapons violation if someone with a longer rap sheet could have gotten a year for a previous crime.”

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided that NC judges had applied the law inappropriately. Some offenders received an added punishment for violating the federal crime of owning a gun as a felon. Yet many of these individuals were wrongly identified as felons, basing the term on the maximum sentence possible for the prior act, not the actual sentence they received based on the prior act in conjunction with each individual’s criminal record as necessary in NC’s Structured Sentencing system. This has caused nearly 3,000 individuals to be serving sentences for a crime that, after this decision, they are legally innocent of.

There is a significant difference between actual innocence and legal innocence. Actual innocence would indicate that the act was never committed where legal innocence admits that the act was committed, but the act is not illegal. The penal system must hold paramount the ideal to not incarcerate any citizens who are either actually innocent or legally innocent. It is deplorable that these government agents are not assisting individuals to retroactively apply the correct sentences based on the recent decision. It is undermining to the penal system that the procedural due process is not being followed to release the individuals being detained for crimes mistakenly applied. With the court’s decision proving these 3,000 inmates to be legally innocent, their terms of sentence should be reevaluated and may reduce some individuals sentences or release some offenders who have completed the term they should have been held for.

For more information on Crime and Punishment in North Carolina, see Jon Sanders’ analysis in the Agenda 2010.