This is hardly the first time crime has been a hot political topic in state politics. I covered the issue as a young reporter. Indeed, on one eventful day in 1987, I became a part of the story myself.
The previous year, I’d completed a summer internship at the Spring Hope Enterprise, a community newspaper in Nash County. For the next two years, while completing my journalism degree at UNC-Chapel Hill, I spent many evenings, weekends, and holidays at the Enterprise, working as an editor and reporter.
At the end of the Spring 1987 semester, I had a few weeks to kill before heading to Washington for another internship. So I pitched in at the Enterprise. On the way to work one morning, I passed by a disheveled-looking man. A little later, I glimpsed the same man speaking animatedly to one of my Enterprise coworkers on the sidewalk outside. When I asked what happened, she explained that he’d claimed to know her from high school and acted aggressively toward her. She also suggested he might be drunk.
That he was. Within a few minutes, the man staggered into the office and demanded to see the young lady. Being an impetuous young man, I stood up and blocked the corridor. The man responded by punching my chest and knocking me to the floor.
I wish I could say the resulting melee has earned a prominent mention in the annals of chivalry. What really happened was some shoving, some yelling, and the near-instantaneous arrival of a police officer. My assailant was hauled off to jail.
Not long afterward, he was hauled off back to state prison from which he had been released the very morning he attacked me!
During the 1980s, North Carolina faced two related problems: rising crime and inadequate prison capacity. A group of inmates filed suit, arguing the overcrowded conditions violated their civil rights. A 1985 settlement eliminated triple-bunking in some prisons. Also that year, the legislature changed the law to allow the state to release felons 180 days before their scheduled released date. The following year, legislators liberalized the law again, allowing “community service” parole when an inmate had served as little as one-eight of his sentence.
Then-Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican, proposed that North Carolina dramatically increase prison construction as well as the use of intensive probation and electronically monitored house arrest to divert criminals from prison. The General Assembly hadn’t yet acted on Martin’s plan when a felon was released that May morning at 6 a.m., attacked me around 9 a.m., and was in the slammer by noon.
Because I was the only reporter available that day, I proceeded to write the story about my own assault. This prompted some consternation from the governor’s office when I called for a quote, though we were all chuckling by the end of the conversation.
Everyone knew the leader of the North Carolina Senate, Lt. Gov. Bob Jordan, would be Martin’s reelection opponent in 1988. Everyone also knew crime would be a major issue in the race. Martin was pushing for the Democratic legislature to build prisons. In response, lawmakers blamed the Republican administration for mishandling the issue. You can see, then, how both sides could have spun my story to sell their narrative — which is precisely what they did.
In 1987, North Carolina’s homicide rate was 8.1 per 100,000 residents. Its rate of aggravated assault was 352.9. As of 2020, those rates were 8.0 and 314.5, respectively. For these two offenses, at least, we are almost back to where we were in the “bad old days.”
As for the story I wrote in 1987, whatever consternation it produced didn’t keep me from writing Jim Martin’s biography — a quarter-century later.