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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Former Hillsborough police officer pleads guilty to sex offense

Posted by on Wed, Apr 22, 2015 at 10:55 AM

A former Hillsborough police officer has pleaded guilty to two counts of indecent liberties with a minor, following an internal investigation conducted by the Hillsborough Police Department in 2013.

James Riley Jr., 62, of 708 Phelps Road in Hillsborough, was fired by the department days after its internal investigation—which included nine nights of surveillance—found "potential criminal conduct" in July 2013, the town said in a release. The Orange County District Attorney's Office filed charges against Riley in April 2014.

Riley, who had worked for the department since January 2004, received a 20- to 33-month suspended jail sentence and was ordered to surrender his law enforcement certification and perform community service. He is currently on probation and was required to register as a sex offender with the state.

According to the registry, Riley was convicted for separate offenses in December 2011 and July 2013. Both victims were 13 years old at the time.

The investigation stemmed from a complaint the town received in April 2013. Even though Riley was off duty at the time of the offenses, the court cited his use of his position as an officer as an aggravating circumstance, the town said.

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    Officer charged with indecent liberties with a minor following internal investigation by Hillsborough Police Department.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

State says wells near Duke coal ash ponds exceed state groundwater standards

Posted by on Tue, Apr 21, 2015 at 4:03 PM

Just a few hours after an Associated Press report already revealed the troubling news, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is publicly acknowledging that most drinking wells sampled near Duke Energy's coal ash ponds included contaminants exceeding state groundwater standards.

Of 117 sample results, 87 surpassed the state's standards, DENR said, although they would still meet the more lax federal guidelines imposed by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Residents were mailed their test results, as well as health risk evaluations and potential well treatment options to eliminate the contaminants.

"If we determine that groundwater standards in a well have been exceeded and that a coal ash pond is the source of that exceedence, we will require Duke Energy to provide the residents with an alternative water supply," said Tom Reeder, assistant secretary for DENR, in a statement.

Duke Energy was required by last year's Coal Ash Management Act to conduct testing at drinking wells within 1,000 feet of a coal ash pond property. These test results come from samples taken near the energy giant's Allen, Asheville, Belews Creek, Buck, Cliffside, Marshall, Roxboro and Sutton facilities, the state said.

DENR, oft-critizised for its seemingly cozy relationship with Duke Energy, said in its statement that the most common constituents exceeding state standards were iron, manganese and pH, all of which can be found naturally in North Carolina soil as well as in coal ash.

However, the AP is also reporting that some of the wells sampled included high levels of vanadium, a toxic metal found in coal ash.

The results come as state officials weigh applications from Duke Energy to dump roughly 3 million tons in abandoned brick mines in Lee and Chatham counties, part of a multi-year plan to dispose of about 100 million tons of the potentially toxic coal byproduct in North Carolina over the next 15 years. Check in tomorrow's Indy for additional coverage of that Duke proposal (Update: Read that coverage here).

Also, read a December report in the Indy revealing that the Lee and Chatham dumps, if approved, might allow the company to avoid legal liability for its coal ash.

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    Regulators say a staggering 87 out of 117 sample results surpass groundwater standards.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

UNC Law, prison reformers: Stop solitary confinement in N.C. now

Posted by on Mon, Apr 13, 2015 at 11:42 AM

On Friday, UNC School of Law professor Deborah Weissman told a story about a prison inmate held in solitary confinement who struck up a friendship with a fly. "And when that fly left his cell, he broke down and wept," she said.

It was just one of a number of stories told as law school officials and prison reform advocates gathered to call for an end to solitary confinement—a practice denoted as "torture" by the United Nations—in U.S. and North Carolina prisons. In most cases, solitary confinement indicates holding a prisoner in an isolated cell for 23 hours a day.

Prison officials say it's used for various reasons, including as punishment or as protection for a mentally ill prisoner, although the confinement is believed by most psychiatric professionals to only exacerbate such an inmate's condition.

Friday's conference included a talk from Robert King, a Louisiana man who spent 29 years in solitary confinement for a false conviction. King was placed in isolation because he was a politically active inmate and a former Black Panther. "I was in prison seven years before I saw the sunshine," King said.

In North Carolina, about 3,400 prisoners, or about 10 percent of the prison population, are held in solitary confinement at any given time, according to Christina Cowger of the N.C. Stop Torture Now advocacy group. Weissman said the U.S. was holding 80,000 inmates in solitary confinement in 2013, some as young as 14 years old.

The practice can have serious impacts on an individual's mental health. Additionally, it costs twice as much as general confinement and has not been shown to help reform inmates. Studies in California and Colorado have found inmates held in solitary were much more likely than their general prison population peers to end up back in prison after their release, said ACLU of N.C. Legal Director Chris Brook.

However, change may be coming. Following the dehydration death of an inmate after a month-long stay in isolation last year, the N.C. Department of Public Safety has announced a number of reforms, including new policies and training, as well as the creation of an ongoing task force to prepare a policy on solitary confinement's uses.

The inmate's death also spurred the termination of nine prison workers and investigations by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, Disability Rights N.C. and a federal grand jury.

A report last November from the UNC School of Law called for an end to solitary confinement, describing it as a "cruel, inhuman and degrading form of punishment that is—or at the very least approximates—torture and a severe form of human rights violation."

Brook said Friday that change is not farfetched in North Carolina, given that states as diverse as Mississippi, Colorado, Illinois and Maine have all begun reform efforts, most in response to lawsuits. "We have the opportunity here," Brook said. "There are glimmers of hope."

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    Advocates say changes may not be so far off in North Carolina.

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Pressure on to increase minimum wage in N.C.

Posted by on Thu, Apr 9, 2015 at 11:55 AM

North Carolina Republicans may not be too keen on raising the state's $7.25 minimum wage, much less talking about it. But progressive groups, catching on to the political winds across the southeast, continue to hammer lawmakers on the issue.

In its latest report, the progressive policy group, N.C. Justice Center, points out that boosting the wage would likely bring benefits for both workers and the state's recovering economy. It's typical economic theory that putting more money in consumers' pockets makes consumers spend more, a message that means a lot right now as many North Carolinians are bringing home smaller tax returns.

The group says raising the state wage to around $10 an hour—a number popular with national Democrats such as President Obama—would affect about 1 million workers in North Carolina, increasing paychecks in the state by an estimated $2 billion annually.

More than 85 percent of those workers would be older than 20 and more than half work full-time, the report said. Furthermore, voters in North Carolina, long consider among the most labor unfriendly states in the nation, may be ready for it.

It's not so farfetched in North Carolina. A 2014 poll by left-leaning Public Policy Polling reported that 58 percent of North Carolinians support a minimum wage increase. And in 2014, voters approved wage increases in GOP bastions such as Arkansas and Nebraska.

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    Liberal group says wage hike will be a boost to workers and the economy.

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Friday, March 27, 2015

Revised prison records bill passes the state House

Posted by on Fri, Mar 27, 2015 at 11:02 AM

A revised version of House Bill 281, which orders prison officials to turn over all records to medical examiners in the event of an inmate's death, has passed the N.C. House unanimously. It will now head to the state Senate.

Read about it in the Indy here, near the bottom of the news roundup.

The legislation was co-sponsored by House Minority Leader Larry Hall, a Democrat from Durham, as well as two other Democrats and one Republican. It was written following the Indy's report last year on the death of Michael Kerr, a Sampson County man with a mental illness who died during a prison transfer following a month-long stay in solitary confinement. A medical examiner later determined that Kerr died of dehydration, offering some confirmation of witnesses' accounts that Kerr was left without eating or drinking in his isolated cell.

Hall's office said the medical examiners performing an autopsy on Kerr were slowed by their difficulty in obtaining records from the state Division of Adult Correction. "Like any investigation, the first 24 hours are the most important," Hall said.

The bill makes it mandatory that prison officials turn over "full and accurate" copies of all records, including those made after the inmate's death, upon request from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

However, a committee substitution that emerged from the House's standing Health Committee includes a stipulation that normally confidential mental health and medical records would remain confidential, since medical examiner's records are typically defined as public records. That version of the legislation is the one that passed the state House Thursday.

The public records concessions were likely made to appease state prison officials. N.C. Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pam Walker indicated this week that the department would be talking to the bill's authors about record confidentiality.

Hall's office said the revised bill now has the support of the Department of Corrections, as well as the chief medical examiner's office, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice.

Kerr's death spurred investigations by the State Bureau of Investigation, a federal grand jury and the nonprofit Disability Rights N.C., which concluded that state prisons suffered "severe deficiencies" in their care of the mentally ill.

Prison officials have announced numerous policy changes and terminations, while an ongoing task force is preparing recommendations on the controversial use of solitary confinement on prisoners with a mental illness.

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    Bill orders prisons to turn over records to medical examiners, although those records would not be deemed open to the public.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

After inmate death, N.C. lawmakers consider clearing records restrictions

Posted by on Mon, Mar 23, 2015 at 3:47 PM

One year after a North Carolina inmate died of dehydration following a month-long stay in solitary confinement, state legislators want to nix bureaucratic restrictions that they say hindered the investigation of that prisoner’s death.

House Democratic Leader Larry Hall, of Durham, has joined one Republican and two Democrats in co-sponsoring House Bill 281, which would require the state Division of Adult Correction to turn over copies of all records to medical examiners in the event of an inmate’s death.

In a statement, Hall said state restrictions “seem to have limited the Office of the Medical Examiner in performing their duty” in investigating the death of Michael Kerr, a Sampson County man with a mental illness who died during his transfer to Raleigh’s Central Prison last March.

The Indy reported Kerr’s death last April, including allegations from multiple sources that Kerr was left handcuffed, covered in his own waste, without food or water in his isolated cell in Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville. Prison workers were attempting to transfer Kerr to Central Prison, the state’s chief mental health facility for male inmates, when he died.

The legislation directs the prisons to provide “full and accurate” copies of all inmate records, including any made after the prisoner’s death, to medical examiners.

As of Monday, the bill had been assigned to the House's standing Health Committee.

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    Bill filed by three Democrats and one Republican would strengthen medical examiner's access to prisoner records.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Chapel Hill Councilman Lee Storrow begins re-election campaign

Posted by on Wed, Mar 18, 2015 at 2:35 PM

It's early, but what's expected to be a busy campaign season in Chapel Hill is underway.

On Tuesday, incumbent Chapel Hill Town Councilman Lee Storrow announced the launch of his re-election campaign. At the age of 22, Storrow was the youngest person on the Council (and still is) upon his election in 2011.

“Serving this community for the past four years has been an enormous privilege,” Storrow said in a statement. “While we’ve accomplished a lot, I hear from residents every day about how we can improve our town. I look forward to working with folks from across Orange County in a second term to help us build a more vibrant, livable community in Chapel Hill.”

Also up for election year this year is the mayor's post held by Mark Kleinschmidt, as well as the seats of council members Donna Bell, Jim Ward and Matt Czajkowski. Czajkowski will not be seeking re-election because he is stepping down at the end of March due to a work move.

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    Town set for busy municipal election season in 2015.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

In Chapel Hill, university and town announce $3 million loan for affordable housing

Posted by on Tue, Mar 10, 2015 at 10:42 AM

Town and university leaders in Chapel Hill on Monday announced the latest step in preserving affordable housing in the town's historic Northside neighborhood.

UNC-Chapel Hill will grant a $3 million, no-interest, 10-year loan to help buy and resell properties in Northside, a historic black community that has become a rental destination for university students over the last two decades. Durham-based Self-Help will manage the loan, in partnership with the Jackson Center, a neighborhood nonprofit, and the town.

"This is a historic day for the Northside neighborhood," said Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt in a release. "We have worked to address the issues of this neighborhood for decades, but have only been able to target the symptoms of this problem. Today we are offering an alternative that empowers the community to define its own future."

Self-Help will use the funds to buy properties and then sell or rent them at an affordable price. The group said its goal is to help long-term residents stay in the neighborhood and attract a "balance" of working families, seniors and students.

Area nonprofits have been attempting to preserve homes in the blue-collar neighborhood for many years, but have struggled to compete with deep-pocketed developers and real estate investors seeking to cash in on student rentals. The neighborhood, which is located less than a mile away from the university, was once a popular spot for university employees and their families.

On Monday, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt called it the university's "obligation" to assist in Northside.

“Years of working and planning here in Northside have created a clear and inspiring vision for the neighborhood’s future,” said Folt. “This loan from UNC-Chapel Hill will help make that vision a reality. It will ensure that Northside continues to be — as it always has been — a valuable and vital part of Chapel Hill.”

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    UNC-Chapel Hill loan intended to preserve workforce housing in town's historic Northside neighborhood.

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Monday, March 9, 2015

Governor's budget funds $24.5 million in mental health improvements in N.C. prisons

Posted by on Mon, Mar 9, 2015 at 2:59 PM

In the days to come, expect detractors on both sides when it comes to Gov. Pat McCrory's proposed budget, which he announced last week. But as far as mental health care in North Carolina prisons, a system McCrory called a "broken culture" last year, the governor appears willing to spend on reforms.

Over the next two years, the governor's spending plan allocates $17.8 million for improved mental health services in the state's prisons, including the creation of "therapy halls" in eight high security prisons where mentally ill inmates would be regularly monitored and treated.

McCrory also proposes spending another $6.6 million over two years to fully staff the mental health unit at Central Prison, the state prison system's primary mental health facility for male inmates. For those seeking improvement in the prison system's mental health services, staffing shortfalls are a common complaint. McCrory's plan would add 66 new positions at the prison.

McCrory's budget plan funds prison reforms announced after the Indy reported the death of inmate Michael Kerr last year. Kerr, who had been suffering from a mental illness, died of dehydration after spending more than a month in solitary confinement at a prison in Taylorsville.

Prison leaders have announced two dozen reforms after Kerr's death, including new management teams, crisis training for officers and prison staff, and the formation of an ongoing task force of mental health and prison leaders debating a policy on the use of solitary confinement on prisoners with a mental illness.

McCrory would also budget $20.7 million in the second year of the biennial budget in order to give raises to nearly 10,000 correctional officers in the state, although the governor's appropriation falls far short of the $55 million the N.C. Department of Public Safety requested for officer raises.

Nevertheless, DPS Secretary Frank Perry—a McCrory appointee—said he was "appreciative" of the governor's plan in a statement Monday. Two weeks ago, Perry told the Indy that officer pay would be key to the system's reform, indicating that he believed higher pay would allow the system to recruit better officers and keep morale high.

"It lifts the entire ship," Perry said. "We're being paid more, so more is expected."

Jack Register, executive director of the N.C. chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said he was "optimistic" following the governor's proposed budget.

However, Register pointed out that several mental health initiatives budgeted by the governor, including expanded care for children and adolescents, would be contingent this year on the tenuous proceeds from the state's sale of the Dorothea Dix property to the city of Raleigh.

Of course, McCrory's budget will now be debated and, in all likelihood, altered by Republican leadership in the N.C. General Assembly. The governor and lawmakers have differed on spending policies in the past.

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    Spending proposal comes after the Indy reported the death of a mentally ill inmate last year.

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Friday, March 6, 2015

N.C. schools report "record low" dropout rates

Posted by on Fri, Mar 6, 2015 at 4:20 PM

Good news out of North Carolina's public schools.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction reports "record low" dropout rates in state schools in the 2013-2014 school year. Read about it in detail here and find copies of the reports here.

Last school year, 2.28 percent of high school students dropped out of school. That marks a decrease from the previous year's record low, which was 2.45 percent.

“This is a day for celebration as North Carolina has seen another record low dropout rate and two school districts report no dropouts,” State Superintendent June Atkinson said in a statement. “This could not have been done without the hard work and perseverance of students, educators and parents. Students realize a high school diploma is the first step toward reaching their life goals. I look forward to the day when reporting zero dropouts is the rule and not the exception.”

Among Triangle schools, Wake County reported a dropout rate of 1.47. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools' rate came in at 0.34, and Durham Public Schools and Orange County Schools reported rates of 1.96 and 1.55, respectively.

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    State marks second consecutive year with record lows.

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