North Carolina Justice Reform With The Second Chance Act

FIRST If you are found not guilty, or the charge has been dismissed, you don’t have to hire an attorney to get an expungement. You get it automatically. This is more important than it seems. I was a prosecutor prior to joining the state Senate. Every day, people would come into my courtroom after being charged with misdemeanors such as trespassing in their neighbor’s yard or harassing their neighbor by phone. But very, very often, the neighbor would appear and tell me “Nah. That’s just Jimmy. We’re fine.” Okay, great. I’ll dismiss this case. Everyone is free to leave. The charge is still on their record until they hire an attorney to expunge it. Most people don’t. Then, when they apply for a job months or years later, the employer will see the old criminal charge. They won’t even be interviewed. This happens *all of the time. * (By way of example, 1 in 4 North Carolinians has a criminal history, which is slightly less than the average national figure.)

This is why it’s been a major problem that almost everyone in the state legislature has agreed on for years. The biggest roadblock came from the technology side, due to the age of the computer software that our court system relies on. The new law gives the courts until late next summer to fix this problem. The law is not retroactive because of the technological issue. We would have to hire a large number of temporary workers and send them to courthouses across the state to do data entry.

SECOND. Last year, North Carolina became the final state in the nation to raise the age for juvenile offenses to 18 from 16. If you’re under 18, you will be prosecuted for a juvenile offense, not an adult crime (barring some exceptions). That’s a good thing. When we corrected that, we forgot to expunge those records of juveniles who were convicted as adults at 16 and 17 years old. This bill allows for the expungement of a small group of juvenile offenders who were convicted as adults when they were 16 and 17.

THIRD After seven years without any new convictions you can expunge nonviolent misdemeanors from your record. If you have been convicted of a nonviolent misdemeanor such as stealing a shopping cart, being intoxicated in public, violating a lawful curfew or obstructing drainage ditches or streams, illegally taking a wild turkey, or any of the other hundreds of nonviolent crimes we have on record, you can now expunge the conviction. Note: There are exceptions, including DWI convictions. They stay.

You might think that this is all pretty easy pickings. From an ideological perspective, yes. Everyone agreed even the legislators that never agree on anything. The hope is that it will create some momentum. Other criminal justice bills are pending with at least some bipartisan support. In addition to these pending bills, you will also see new legislative proposals in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Later this week, I will update you on the status of that effort.

I personally want to thank two Republicans and one Democrat on the Senate side for their help in getting this done. Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Democrat, was a longtime champion of the bill. He worked with Sen. Warren Daniel and Sen. Danny Britt to get the bill into a form that could be passed by both chambers. It took years. It took years to pass this bill.

Let me end with what we heard from a woman called Lynn Burke in committee. She said that the nonviolent crime, which she committed 20 years ago, continues to haunt her. She passed the bar, but because of her conviction, she cannot be licensed to practice law in North Carolina. She told us: “If it goes through, my whole life will be altered.”

– Sen. Jeff Jackson