Wednesday, July 11, 2007

How long will Black really serve?

If you’re in big trouble with the law, Ken Bell would be a good lawyer to have on your side. Bell’s determined defense of former Speaker Jim Black probably kept the former Mecklenburg lawmaker free a couple extra months while his sentencing hearing was postponed and may have helped persuade a federal judge to impose a somewhat shorter sentence than Black might have gotten.
This is conjecture, of course.
And Bell wasn’t able to get Black off the hook. At Black’s level of crimes – which presiding Judge Terrence Boyle concluded was closer to bribery than the legal terms involving “accepting illegal gratuities” implied for taking cash contributions from contributors – a stiff prison sentence was clearly in order. If Black had gotten off, or had been sentenced to an unusually short sentence, it would have mocked our criminal justice system and served as a sign that it’s okay to buy and sell votes and pull any kind of shenanigans just to stay in power.
Judge Boyle gave Black 63 months in prison plus a $50,000 fine. That’s five years and three months, but it was at the low end of a sentencing range that Judge Boyle said could have landed Black in prison for 78 months – or six and a half years.
There are those who believe Judge James Dever, who handled the Michael Decker case when former Rep. Decker pleaded guilty to accepting a $50,000 bribe to switch parties and help keep Black in power, would have given Black a longer sentence. Dever gave Decker a four-year sentence and issued a blistering description of Black’s actions as a selfish lust for power that corrupted the political process.
That’s when Ken Bell filed a motion asking that Judge Dever recuse himself from further proceedings. Judge Dever denied Bell’s assertion that he would be biased against Black because his and Decker’s scheme essentially reversed a lawsuit that then-private-attorney Dever helped win in a state court case over legislative redistricting. But Dever stepped aside anyway in the interests of putting this case to rest.
Judge Boyle took over the case, culminating Wednesday with his imposing a 63-month sentence. Dever, some courtroom observers thought, might have given Black a year or two longer in prison. We’ll never know.
Now: How long will Black serve? If he earns the normal federal good-time-off credit of up to 15 percent, he could be released in about 54 months – making his sentence about four years and six months.
There is no federal parole, but there is such a thing as time off for good behavior. Here’s a May 9 blog entry I wrote on this topic:
How long will Decker, Geddings serve?
U.S. District Judge James Dever has sentenced former N.C. Rep. Michael Decker and former N.C. Lottery Commissioner Kevin Geddings to four years in prison for their unrelated roles in a political scandal involving former Speaker Jim Black. Black has yet to be sentenced, but already readers are wondering what a federal sentence really means.
One reader asks:
“Nowhere in the Observer or on TV have I heard anything but Geddings has been sentenced to ‘four years.’ Now, the public are not dummies.... how long will he realistically be in jail, serving what has been called a longer then recommended sentence?
“When will the parole eligibility kick in? 6 months? Less?
“We all know that white collar criminals rarely serve a sentence that will disrupt their careers or personal lives. You know he will behave himself while he is locked up, (probably while writing a book about his innocence and perceived miscarriage of justice.) Let us know what the real sentence we can expect him to serve truly is.”
That’s a good question. Some years ago, inmates in both state and federal prison served a fraction of their nominal sentences, but that changed when both the federal government and North Carolina government rewrote their sentencing laws and did away with the parole system for crimes committed after the mid-1990s.
This is a federal case. I’ve looked up the guidelines and practice on the U.S. Department of Justice Web site and, if what I read is correct, federal prisoners can expect to serve roughly 85 percent of their sentences. That means both Decker and Geddings could expect to serve about 41 months in prison. They would be eligible for a “good conduct time credit” of up to 54 days per year in prison.
There is no such thing as federal parole. Both Decker and Geddings will also serve a two-year tem of supervised release, and each will also be responsible for paying a fine – $50,000 in Decker’s case and $25,000 in Geddings’ case.


David McKnight said...

Jim Black would never have bribed a Republican legislator to switch parties, as was maintained by the prosecution. The former Speaker could, however, distribute political funds to all other Democrats in the House, including new members of the party who may have decided to switch parties. Therefore, it would not have been unnatural for someone choosing to switch parties to the Democratic side to expect to have some chance at political campaign support, and it is regrettable that this likely scenario was not given the serious hearing and consideration it deserved.

This was all permissible through normal political campaign patronage practices involving providing campaign fund assistance from the leadership to members. Indeed, finding employment for people involved in politics is also a normal and traditional exercise in practical day-to-day politics. Candidates for governor, if nominated and then elected, do all they can do to attract the best possible people to the work of state government in the executive branch.

It seems that The Observer just lost interest in the Mecklenburg County vantage points of this story and stood silently by as a hard-working lawmaker and dedicated professional optician was falsely accused by the tight-as-a-rope, inside-the-Beltway Raleigh poltiical establishment.

Then, naturally, we get the first Observer "staff stories" on the sentencing in the form of a dual-byline account by two reporters for Raleigh's News & Observer--fine reporters to be sure but with no need to worry about the Mecklenburg County view on these developments.

If correctable missteps by as fine a person as Jim Black can be blown all out of porportion by the Cassius- and Brutus-like quarterbacks of Raleigh's political inquisition, then anyone coming out of Mecklenburg County with an interest in a public service career must be especially vigilent and cautious about any and all "appearances."

The thing for The Observer to do journalistically is to start getting the story right from the get-go, from the front end, rather than wait for the Raleigh Boo-Bird Chorus to take over and render shallow and suspect judgments in retrospect about what may have happened before. It is unconscionable that a newspaper like The Observer with an editor with strong ties to Fayetteville and Eastern North Carolina would settle for letting the Raleigh News & Observer serve as its Raleigh bureau for Charlotte-area readers.

That's like hoping Tim Duncan will give the Charlotte Bobcats an easy lane to the basket when they take on the San Antonio Spurs.

Start getting it right from the beginning, Mecklenburg--both political participants and journalistic chroniclers--then your young people can have the same private- and public-sector career options as are taken for granted in Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Raleigh.

Meanwhile, thee is still hope that the true facts in this case will eventually become more readily apparent for all to see and judge for themselves.

John Ryan said...

Jim Black is lucky he's not in China. Maybe that would be a deterrent for crooked politicians.

dan said...

Did someone call Jim Black a "fine person?"...

I'm laughing, loudly.

JAT said...

David --

Seriously, what planet are you posting from?

Mecklenburg was roo-rooed for years by the Down East kleptocracy Jim Black served. And what was the ONE local institution Black drilled down to win state funds for? UNCC, part of the huge UNC lobby in Raleigh.

If Jim Black was so great for the county and city, why do we have a road network that is a joke? Find me another growing, major city on the East Coast with so little capacity vs. demand. None of our peers would swap with us.

As for the rest of your rant -- what "career options" are lacking in Charlotte that ANY government official could remotely impact?

And if other cities are so great -- move.

Jim Black was a petty crook. Official Charlotte -- including the Observer -- turned a blind eye for years to that fact.

That history will stand. Forever.

Bryan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I recently completed a short sentence in a federal prison camp for a white collar offense so perhaps I have a different perspective.

You quote a reader:

"Now, the public are not dummies.... how long will he realistically be in jail, serving what has been called a longer then recommended sentence?"

Your response was approximately correct in stating that Black will earn 15% off his sentence for "good time" (due to an oddity in the formula, it is actually closer to 13% -- click here for details). However, he is also entitled to 10% of his remaining time (max 6 months) in a halfway house. Thus 63 months earns about 9 months good time, leaving about 54 months, but he will be able to spend the last 5+ months (10% of 54) of that in a halfway house in Charlotte (or wherever he is living then). Thus he will actually do just over 48 months in prison. Furthermore, if he can qualify for the drug and alcohol treatment program (you don't REALLY have to have a problem to get in -- it's really quite funny), he could knock as much as another year off. Absolute best case scenario is 36 months with 6 months halfway house, but 48 months is more likely.

Your reader continues:

“We all know that white collar criminals rarely serve a sentence that will disrupt their careers or personal lives. "

To which I say: "Have you lost your f***ing mind?"

A 63 month sentence for a white collar offense is DEVASTATING; even the 48 months he will actually serve is devastating. But you know what... the prison time is the easy part. You have NO CLUE what he and his family have gone through over the last 2 years nor what the next 4 will do. Black will leave prison 76 years old. He and his family will never be the same.

Today's paper said he was facting a 33-41 month sentence... even that I thought was harsh. To end up in the 63-76 month range means that the judge had to buy the government's "enhancement" arguments and adjusted his sentence dramatically upward accordingly (after which he seems "merciful" by then sentencing at the bottom of the "enhanced" range). I haven't seen the specifics so I don't know how the guideline points shook out but for anyone to suggest that Black was "lucky" doesn't have the slightest idea what he is talking about.

Anonymous said...

For those who care, I have a better link than the one above explaining the bizarre formula that BOP uses to calculate a "good time" and why it actually comes out to 12.8% rather than 15%:


It looks like Black will get about 235 days (47 days times 5 years) good time rather than 270 (54 days times 5 years). Note that you only get the good time credit at the END of each full year so he doesn't earn any good time for the last 3 months (his sentence was 63, not 60) because that is only "part" of his 6th year -- he never actually completes a 6th year to earn credit for it.

Indeed, I am not sure but it is possible that he may not even get the 47 days for the 5th year because he will not complete the 5th year based on the "good time" he earns during the first 4. That is, the 188 days (4 x 47) he earns through the first 4 years will get him below 5 years so he will not actually serve long enough to get credit for a 5th year's good time even though he was sentenced to 5+ years.

I know most of you could care less about this but it tells you a little something about our system that something that should be so simple could turn into something requiring a PhD in math to figure out.

One final aside... this is also why you see so many federal sentences at 1 year and 1 day. You have to serve MORE than 1 year to earn good time. An exact one year sentence requires all 365 days to be served. A one year plus one day sentence only requires 318 days (with the 47 days good time). That extra day makes ALL the difference.

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