An important bright spot emerges at the General Assembly

By: - April 18, 2017 5:00 am

Progress on “second chance” agenda marks a rare positive development in state policy wars

There are a lot of reasons for caring and thinking North Carolinians to be discouraged these days about what’s happening in the world of public policy. In the nation’s capital, the corrupt and illegitimate Trump administration is a perpetual, slow motion train wreck. Meanwhile, Congress is a frequently dysfunctional war zone in which some of the most conservative political leaders in modern American history are engaged in a pitched battle with far right extremists who want to repeal fundamental components of the national social contract.

And here in Raleigh, conservatives are wielding their ideologically driven wrecking ball for the seventh consecutive year. All around us, public structures and systems essential to a thriving and sustainable middle class society lie wounded and bleeding by the side of the road while the wealthy, large and profitable corporations, polluters, privatizers and religious zealots remain firmly in control of the bulldozer of state.

And yet, as bleak as this picture is, all hope is far from lost. Indeed, for those who used last November’s election results as a reason for dedicating themselves to what has come to be known as the “resistance” movement, there are actually important reasons to take heart.

In Washington, determined opposition from progressives played a big role in rescuing the Affordable Care Act and defeating the cheap knock-off version that conservative leaders were trying to foist on the American public – a victory that has helped force the Trumpists to scale back their ambitions in a host of areas.

And, of course, just last week here in North Carolina, a group of conservative Republican lawmakers even took the heretofore unimaginable step of introducing legislation that would move North Carolina in the direction of Medicaid expansion. The proposal – dubbed “Carolina Cares” – is inadequate, chock full of flaws and a political longshot, but it still represents an important and encouraging shift.

Hope and progress on another front: The “second chance” agenda

And then there is, remarkably enough, a subject area in which lawmakers are not just stopping bad ideas or making them less destructive, but actually advancing thoughtful, positive, humane and, perhaps most amazingly, bipartisan legislation. In 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly is poised to seriously consider (and even pass) several criminal justice reform bills that would reduce the state’s addiction to incarcerating its citizens and burdening them with crippling badges that make success later in life all but impossible.

Here’s a brief list from this promising agenda:

Raise the Age – With New York having recently acted, North Carolina will soon be the only state in the union that automatically treats 16 and 17 year olds as adults in the criminal justice system. House Bill 280 – the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act – would change this by raising the age for entry into the adult system to 18. As the following points from a fact sheet prepared by bill supporters note, the proposal makes enormous sense – from a practical, fiscal and humane perspective:

  • Unlike the adult system, the juvenile justice system requires contact with court counselors, assessments, rehabilitative services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, counseling and education and also involves families.
  • A large number of kids end up in adult corrections (and receive permanent records) for school based offenses. A schoolyard fight that might have led to after-school detention 10 years ago, now often leads to adult charges of assault.
  • Because so many receive permanent adult records, North Carolina teens are at a significant disadvantage to the rest of the nation, often for jobs or higher education in our own state.
  • The proposed bill only applies to young people who commit misdemeanors and lower-level felonies – offenses that actually comprise about 97 percent of the ones committed by 16- and 17-year-olds.
  • Evidence shows that youth who go through the adult system are more likely to be re-arrested, re-convicted and re-incarcerated down the road, increasing costs to society and taxpayers. When teenagers are thrown into adult prison, they are often victimized or forced to join gangs for protection. Our current system turns teens into repeat offenders as adults.

Fair hiring practices – Last week, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed legislation by a 98-14 margin that would require North Carolina state agencies to adopt fairer hiring practices when it comes to potential employees with criminal records. Under House Bill 409 – sometimes referred to in an inaccurate and oversimplified way as “ban the box” legislation – the state would no longer ask job applicants for most state positions about their criminal records until they have signed a waiver, are being considered for a specific position and have received an interview. If a criminal record turns up, the bill offers several directives as to how that information is to be taken into account. In addition, the bill makes clear that mere arrests without conviction shall not be grounds for denying state employment.

Expanded opportunities for cleaning up criminal recordsSenate Bill 445 and House Bill 621 would reduce the wait time for “expunction” of certain convictions and charges. Specific changes include:

  • Reducing the wait time for expunction of a first-time nonviolent felony from 15 years to 10 years,
  • Reducing the wait time for expunction of a first-time nonviolent misdemeanor from 15 years to 5 years,
  • Providing for expunction of all dismissed and “not guilty” charges if the person has not been convicted of a felony,
  • Providing prosecutors electronic access to records expunged on or after 12/1/17,
  • Treating a conviction expunged on or after 12/1/17 as a prior record if the person reoffends, and
  • Establishing a uniform procedure for filing of expunction petitions.

Two other companion measures (Senate Bill 455 and House Bill 671) would build on the expunction changes by providing additional opportunities for certain people to obtain “certificates of relief” – a document that can make certain automatic civil disqualifications (e.g. for occupational licenses) discretionary, provide employers, landlords, and other decision-makers evidence of “due care” that shields them from negligence liability, and provide employers, landlords, and other decision-makers additional information and context in determining an applicant’s suitability for a specific position or resource.

Each of these measures enjoys significant support from conservative groups, judges and law enforcement officials – all of whom rightfully see them as common sense ways to reduce costs and get more North Carolinians gainfully employed.

Possible flies in the ointment

Unfortunately, despite broad support and little (if any) organized opposition, none of these bills is law yet. In a modern political world in which demagoguery, racism and “gotcha” soundbites play such a prominent role, the temptation for a handful of cynical politicians to take the low road when it comes to criminal justice legislation remains powerful. Despite decades of accumulated evidence that mass incarceration policies only make matters worse when it comes to preventing crime and lifting struggling communities, it seems a certainty that some in the General Assembly will drag out their hoary old “get tough on crime” speeches in the days ahead.

Such tired ideas and rhetoric are no doubt behind one especially counterproductive bill that will appear on the House calendar tomorrow afternoon. House Bill 369, a measure to alter state law when it comes to the procedures that apply to individuals on probation, parole or post-release supervision, flies directly in the face of the promising items described above. Among other things, it would, quite literally, allow unfettered searches of probationers, parolees and folks on post-release supervision at any time or place and for any reason.

Current law requires searches to take place at reasonable times. The proposed bill removes this requirement and, indeed, makes clear that there need not even be any suspicion. The bill even removes the current requirement that the search be for “purposes directly related to the probation supervision.” In other words, the proposal gives a complete blank check to law enforcement and probation officers to engage in any kind of humiliating personal searches and, indeed, harassment of probationers they may be inclined to inflict. This will be true even for probationers who have never spent a day in jail!

The bottom line

For the most part, North Carolina is on the right track in advancing the national movement against mass incarceration. Let’s hope lawmakers stay on it in the days and weeks ahead and resist the temptation to derail. And let’s hope progressive advocates build on their successes of recent weeks to keep them moving ahead.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.