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The rest of the story on habitual felons 

Suppose someone breaks into your home during the day when you're away and steals everything of value that you own. You later learn that this person was convicted of breaking into four other homes before yours. Should he spend a couple months on probation, or be eligible for eight years in prison?

In several jaw-dropping editorials in recent weeks, The Charlotte Observer, Raleigh's News & Observer, the Asheville Citizen Times and the Winston-Salem Journal attempted to hoodoo their readers into supporting changes to the habitual felon law that would allow those who repeatedly break into people's homes to walk free with little time in prison.

For months, these papers have uncritically spun the talking points of state legislators who want to gut North Carolina's habitual felon law. Our "three-strikes" style law makes those convicted of their fourth felony eligible for years and sometimes more than a decade of extra prison time after their fourth felony conviction in addition to the time served for their latest offense.

These papers claim the state's habitual felon law wastes money by putting people convicted of low-level Class H and I drug felonies away for years, and that's essentially true. Their stories spun heart-wrenching tales of drug-addicted inmates arrested for possession and locked away for decades and made the case for exempting Class H and I felons from our habitual felon law.

What they didn't tell their readers -- can't let the facts ruin a good story -- is that these same felony classes also cover the crimes of breaking into people's homes and stealing their things. Not one article or editorial has clearly explained this, an oversight that is journalistically inexcusable.

In an editorial reprinted in The Charlotte Observer last week, the Winston-Salem Journal editorial board claimed that the money we could save by exempting Class H and I felons from our habitual felon law could be better spent locking away those who "truly threaten" our society.

Enter Exhibit A, spree killer Patrick Burris. Burris recently shot and killed five people in Gaffney, S.C. He had a 25-page record and spent the last eight years locked away in a North Carolina prison as a habitual felon. He earned this designation not for low-level felony drug possession, but for four felony breaking and entering charges. On the fifth, he was slapped with a habitual felon designation that earned him at least five more years in prison than he would not have gotten if he were merely sentenced on the last breaking and entering charge. Most North Carolinians would consider that money well spent.

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Peter Gilchrist recently explained this in an editorial that attempted to fill in the gaps in the newspapers reporting.

"A defendant convicted of the Class H offense of housebreaking and found to be a habitual felon must be sentenced to prison for between 44 months and 210 months, depending upon his prior record level," Gilchrist wrote. If the habitual felon law no longer applied to this crime, a felon would get a four to 30 month sentence. But there's a catch: Without the habitual felon law, much of that time is served on probation rather than in prison, unless the repeat house breaker qualifies for active time under the state's structured sentencing law, which many don't.

North Carolina's already lax laws on housebreaking have lead to North Carolina having the highest home break-in rate (the FBI calls it "burglary") of any state in the nation according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. This is because in North Carolina, for breaking and entering to count as a higher level "burglary" felony carrying far more time, the crime must occur at night when the victims are home. The penalty for most daytime break-ins is probation. Criminals know they can be convicted of breaking into homes at least four times without ever serving a day in prison, which has lead to a free-for-all on North Carolinians' property.

If anything, we need to toughen our breaking and entering laws. Currently, the only way for a prosecutor to put a repeat house-breaker away for a significant amount of time is to use the habitual felon law. It's frightening to ponder how much our already atrocious home break-in/burglary rate would rise if certain legislators and the state's newspapers succeed in gutting the habitual felon law.

Somehow I doubt readers of the state's newspapers would be eager to let habitual house-breaking felons off the hook, especially given that the crime can be a gateway to more violent crimes. Other crimes covered by the H and I felony classes, as Gilchrist wrote in his editorial, include car break-ins, felony larceny and embezzlement of less than $100,000.

Rep. Phil Haire and the co-sponsors of the bill to alter the law know darn well that they could merely exempt low-level drug crimes from the habitual felony law -- which I would support -- without exempting the whole H and I felony classes and house-breaking along with it. They're just hoping the public doesn't figure this out. Given the level of journalistic malpractice on this issue, the public might not.

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