Investigators say Baldwin took the van and $400 cash from a Chapel Hill bagel shop where he was employed in a prison work-release program over the weekend.
Baldwin's escape is raising questions about North Carolina's inmate work release program.
The Department of Corrections said inmates rarely escape from facilities, but they admit most escapees walk away while working outside the security gates.
"He went out there and he was given an opportunity to work on a work release program and he just made a mistake," said Armstead Hodges with the Department of Corrections.
Baldwin is a habitual felon and Friday wasn't the first time he made a run for it.
His rap sheet includes a long list of larceny to fraud. In 1989 he escaped, but was rearrested years later for breaking and entering.
But Baldwin still qualified for the work release program at the Orange Correction Center. Corrections officials said they looked at the big picture, giving more weight to the inmate's recent good behavior rather than his record 20 years ago.
"Most of these inmates understand what the responsibilities are of being in the workplace," Hodges said. "You go to your job and eventually they'll return to society as a productive citizen."
Administrators said a psychological screening ensures inmates are not a threat to the public.
It's a good-faith decision some question, considering there are about 600 work-release inmates statewide.
"They might need to be a little more cautious, but I think it's a good idea," resident Maureen Stavas said.
There are usually about 1200 work release inmates statewide, but the economy has fewer businesses participating in the program.
With no infractions in recent years, until now, Baldwin would have been a free man in 2011.