- NC Policy Watch - https://www.ncpolicywatch.com -

NC just enacted ambitious criminal justice reform legislation. Here’s what it does.

[1]
Gov. Roy Cooper signs criminal justice reform legislation at a ceremony last Thursday. (Photo: Office of Gov. Roy Cooper)

Gov. Roy Cooper signed a comprehensive criminal justice reform package [2] (Senate Bill 300) into law last Thursday. It became effective immediately.

The bill, originally sponsored by Republicans with input from Democrats, gained bipartisan support – though not universal acclaim.

A press release from Cooper’s office touted the fact that the bill included provisions recommended by the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice [3] that the Governor established in June of 2020:

“Senate Bill 300 makes important changes to improve policing and criminal justice in North Carolina, as recommended by TREC, including:

  • Promotes recruitment of officers with diverse backgrounds and experiences and improves training so that officers are better equipped to be successful
  • Requires early intervention mechanisms to identify and correct officers who use excessive force or other misconduct
  • Furthers independent investigations of police-involved shootings
  • Limits local laws that criminalize poverty
  • Requires a first appearance in court within 72 hours of a person being arrested.”

The bill also won praise from law enforcement officials. In a press release, the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association applauded the sponsors of the bill for soliciting and considering the input of the organization.

“This legislation will enhance the criminal justice system and the law enforcement profession,” the press release stated.

Sen. Vickie Sawyer, a Republican representing Iredell and Yadkin counties, said the legislation brought together groups with opposing views, including law enforcement and criminal justice reform organizations. On a talk show [4] Sawyer that co-hosted, Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican and a sponsor of the legislation, echoed that assessment. Britt said that, in developing the bill, he took recommendations from different work groups, told law enforcement representatives to come up with “confines to put around” the bill, and then asked for feedback from civil rights groups.

“The biggest highlight of that bill is it creates several different databases for decertification of law enforcement officers, use of… deadly force involving officers. It provides for a way to discover if an officer has an arrest out of state that may or may not show up here,” he said. “It really allows law enforcement to hire the best and brightest and weed out a few ‘bad apples’ that we do have. The majority of law enforcement do an excellent job … [and] do what’s right all the time.”

Despite the bipartisan plaudits the legislation received, not everyone marked its enactment as an unqualified success. In a press release issued prior to the bill signing, Daniel Bowes, director of policy and advocacy for the ACLU of North Carolina [5] decried the lobbying efforts of the NC Conference of District Attorneys and NC Sheriffs’ Association that prevented what he described as critical criminal justice reforms from being included in the bill.

“The law enforcement training and oversight provisions in SB 300 rely on and perpetuate the falsehoods that the failings of the criminal legal system are the result of ‘a few bad apples’ and that the police can police themselves,” Bowes said.

Dawn Blagrove, executive director of criminal justice nonprofit Emancipate NC [6], expressed similar sentiments. “SB 300 makes important strides for first appearances in misdemeanor cases, but does little else to create much needed equity or advance the level of accountability for law enforcement the people need,” she said.

Here’s what’s in the reform package:

Strengthening law enforcement accountability

Law enforcement officers now have a duty to intervene and report when they see other officers using excessive force. Many criminal justice research organizations have called for the inclusion of such a duty to intervene in police conduct requirements.

The law creates a public certification, revocation and suspension database of law enforcement officers.

The Criminal Justice Standards Division of the Department of Justice will create a database of police-involved incidents involving use of force. This “critical incident” database will be for internal review and study only, however, and will not be available to the general public.

An “internal warning system” will also be put in place for law enforcement agencies to use in monitoring officer actions and behaviors, including the discharge of a firearm, the use of force and citizen complaints.

Oversight

State agencies, including the State Bureau of Investigations, will be required, upon the request of the governor, sheriff, chief of police, head of a state law enforcement agency, district attorney, or the Commissioner of Prisons to investigate deaths that result from the use of force by law enforcement officers, as well as deaths of incarcerated people.

The new law strengthens the disclosure of law enforcement credibility when officers serve as witnesses in trials, as recommended by the NC Sheriffs’ Association in a 2020 report [7]. Any certified law enforcement or justice officer who is notified that they may not be called to testify at trial based on bias, interest, or lack of credibility should report to the Criminal Justice Standards Division notifying them of the same.

Training and certification

Any individual applying to be certified as a law enforcement or justice officer will now need to go through background checks. Agencies will need to submit fingerprints of these applicants and others already certified to the FBI. It’s hope that will help identify any criminal history of prospective and current law enforcement personnel. It will also be required that various training commissions run applicants through the national decertification index.

The law establishes uniform minimum training standards for the state.

The training commissions will develop a guide for increasing diversity of the police force.

Body camera footage disclosure

In cases of police violence that result in deaths or serious injury, relatives of victims and their legal representatives can request the disclosure of body camera footage and law enforcement agencies must then file a petition to the superior court within three business days.

A judge then needs to return a decision on the disclosure within seven days of the filing. If they deny the request, a review will be conducted within 20 days of the ruling.

However, the footage will not be immediately available to the public, which is governed by the provision about the “release” of such recordings. The law makes it a misdemeanor to make a copy of the recording and a crime to disseminate the content.

Emancipate NC director Dawn Blagrove criticized the last-minute modification to the body camera provision, saying that it shifts the burden to family members to seek the disclosure. She added that the previously law enforcement officials had the discretion to show videos to family members without needing judicial approval.

Mental health

The law institutes a requirement for officers to be screened for mental health issues in certification and go through training.

Health care providers will now be able to transport respondents with mental illnesses in involuntary commitment proceedings, at which a court decides whether to force patients into custody of mental health facilities. Previously, sheriffs’ deputies were solely responsible for transporting patients involved in the involuntary commitment process to and from treatment facilities, often shackling or handcuffing them, as North Carolina Health News reported [8].

First appearances

The law modifies the law regulating “first appearance” hearings, at which district judges review criminal charges, and decide whether a defendant should be released, bonded out, deferred or acquitted. The law shortens the maximum wait period between the commitment to jail and the first appearance hearing from 96 hours to 72, with the objective of ensuring speedy trials while accommodating weekend schedules. It also adds a first appearance requirement for people charged with a misdemeanor.

Criminal charges, punishment and rulemaking

The law will establish a special group to study the state’s criminal laws and make legislative recommendations. The Bipartisan North Carolina Legislative Working Group on Criminal Law Recodification will facilitate streamlining the state criminal code, and develop a database of crimes and offenses under different statutes, common law, regulations and ordinances.

North Carolina’s criminal system is based on structured sentencing, with “sentencing grids” detailing the sentences that individuals should receive for various offenses, including the minimum and maximum.

However, certain ordinances will no longer impose a criminal penalty under the new law. People who are charged can also seek dismissal if they don’t pick up another charge related to that ordinance within 30 days or by addressing the underlying condition for the offense.

This provision was introduced via an amendment by Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, D-Mecklenburg. He told Policy Watch that hundreds of people are frequently charged with crimes for local ordinance violations, including public urination or sleeping on a park bench, or failure to pay bus fares. “We’re not criminalizing poverty at the end of the day, and that’s what we’ve done for far too long,” he said. “And sadly our local governments have participated in that with their own local ordinances.”

Apart from police accountability, the law also creates a new felony for resisting a law enforcement officer, if such action results in injuries to the officer.

The satellitebased monitoring program that some sex offenders are subject to is now limited to a lifetime maximum of ten years. Now only re-offenders with two or more convictions for a felony need to register for the program. Judicial review can terminate such monitoring.

The North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission and the North  Carolina  Sheriffs’  Education Training Standards Commission, which are responsible for law enforcement training, will be empowered to develop minimum standards for in-service training without having to go through the lengthy rulemaking process.