Legislature should seize rare opportunity for ideological common ground

Legislature should seize rare opportunity for ideological common ground

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing

The North Carolina General Assembly is back in Raleigh this week and, as noted in this space last Friday, there are some important reasons to be frustrated and concerned about this fact – not the least of which is the refusal of Senate and House leaders to tell the public what the heck is on the agenda.

To make matters even more worrisome, most of the legislative moves rumored to be under consideration – particularly the idea of voting on motions to override extant gubernatorial vetoes – would be sure to give rise more of the partisan divisions and destructive stalemates that have plagued state politics in recent years.

Happily, there is a noteworthy and potentially far-reaching legislative proposal out there that provides an opportunity to break out of this unproductive pattern. The bill is called the Second Chance Act and, in a truly unusual and hopeful set of circumstances, it enjoys the strong support of a diverse array of advocacy groups from both the right (including Americans for Prosperity, the American Conservative Union, ALEC Action) and the left (including the ACLU of North Carolina, the North Carolina NAACP and Black Workers for Justice).

Among many others, the bill is also supported by the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, the North Carolina Chamber and the North Carolina Justice Center – parent organization of NC Policy Watch.

The reason for this widespread support is simple: Americans of all political persuasions (see the polling numbers below) have come to understand the futility and wastefulness of anti-crime policies that fail to account for the realities of life after incarceration.

For as appealing as so-called “tough on crime” laws have been and generally remain, voters also “get it” that the overwhelming majority of the two million-plus North Carolinians with criminal records will, at some point, need to find a job and a place to live. What’s more, right now, those seemingly basic objectives are made vastly more difficult than they ought to be by North Carolina laws that keep folks with criminal records – even those who long ago turned their lives around – from cleaning those records up.

The Second Chance Act lowers the existing roadblocks in these areas in several ways.

First, it automatically expunges certain criminal charges that are dismissed or disposed of as “not guilty” (something that one would have thought was already the case) and allows individuals to petition for expungement of others.

It also allows individuals to petition for expungement of all nonviolent misdemeanor convictions after seven years of good behavior and the expunction of a nonviolent felony conviction after 10 years of good behavior. The definitions of “nonviolent misdemeanor” and “nonviolent felony” are not changed by the bill.

It’s also important to note that while expunged criminal records are not available to the public, the bill would still preserve an important “safety valve” by making clear records can still be accessed by district attorneys and considered by courts for sentencing if a person re-offends.

Given that nearly one in four adults in North Carolina now has a criminal record, it’s perhaps not surprising that public opinion strongly favors these kinds of changes. A new survey conducted just last week by the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies made the following findings:

  • On the question of whether state law should automatically remove the records of individuals when their case is dismissed or they are found not guilty: 89% said “yes” and only 10% said “no.”
  • On whether to automatically remove nonviolent misdemeanor convictions if the person has remained clean for seven years: 86% “yes,” and only 12% “no.”
  • On allowing people to ask for the removal of nonviolent misdemeanor convictions if they have stayed clean for five years: 81% “yes,” and only 18% “no.”

With such overwhelming bipartisan support – both amongst advocates and the public – it comes as little surprise that the bill was approved unanimously by the Senate last spring. As the bill’s trio of sponsors (Sen. Danny Britt (R- Robeson), Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Burke) and Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham)) said at the time in a joint statement:

Everyone is subject to the rule of law, but those who have served their time deserve the opportunity to turn their lives around without the burden of these low-level convictions on their permanent record, hindering them from getting into college, joining the military or getting jobs. This bill frees individuals from this unwarranted and unnecessary burden and gives them a second chance to become a productive member of society.”

Unfortunately, as is frequently the case in politics under leaders of both parties, the proposal got derailed for mysterious reasons in the House last summer – a time during which legislative activity generally slowed to a crawl. As a result, despite having won unanimous approval from the Judiciary Committee, the measure has yet to come to the full floor for a vote.

The bottom line: Political and ideological divides remain severe in North Carolina and no one outside of a handful of powerful legislative leaders knows for sure what the General Assembly will tackle this week, but if there’s any chance at all for bipartisan, common good governance in 2020, the Second Chance Act will be at the top of this week’s legislative agenda.