House sends crime bill to Cooper’s desk despite some Democrats warning it’s unconstitutional

By: - June 28, 2023 11:57 am
Rep. Abe Jones peaks into a microphone on the House floor

Rep. Abe Jones (D-Wake) defends a bill on the House floor that his Democratic colleagues warned is unconstitutional because it can keep people jailed without having been convicted of a crime. Photo: stream

The tension between public safety and a person’s right not to be held in jail without having been convicted of a crime once again took center stage in a House floor debate Tuesday as legislators voted on the Pretrial Integrity Act before sending it to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.

“Our constitution says you are presumed innocent,” said Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), a former district court judge. “You are not punished before a hearing or a trial. This is punishment.”

The same debate played out when the House advanced the bill in May. A state senator raised similar concerns in a committee hearing earlier this month, then successfully amended the bill so that low-level traffic offenses would not keep people stuck in jail for a few days.

The bill allows people to sit in jail for up to 48 hours without having been convicted of anything if they were charged with certain serious crimes or arrested while already free on pretrial release when another they have another pending charge. Essentially, it would mean that judges, not magistrates, would set bail in those instances, unless 48 hours passes, and then magistrates could do it.

Critics of the proposal, like Morey, have pointed out that people could be held in jail for up to two days for getting charged with a nonviolent crime like trespassing, for which they might not be sentenced to time behind bars.

Others, meanwhile, contend that the bill is needed to keep the public safe. Rep. John R. Bradford III (R-Mecklenburg), one of the bill’s sponsors, said an army of law enforcement, prosecutors and Charlotte city officials all support the proposal.

“This 48-hour time is ‘up to’ 48 hours; many of the judges get to it well before 48 hours,” Bradford said. “It is not a mandatory hold.”

Bradford was the only Republican who spoke on the floor during Tuesday’s debate. The debate was mostly among Democrats, and it was largely an academic exercise, as Republicans have the votes to move the bill with or without their support.

The bill passed the House Tuesday by a vote of 89-30. Republicans unanimously supported it, as did 17 Democrats.

Rep. Abe Jones (D-Wake) was among those who supported it. A defense attorney and former judge who said he defends many young Black men, Jones said it was important to incentivize struggling teens to do right, and to disincentivize them from doing wrong.

“There are a lot of young kids that will go the right way if we lead them the right way. There are other kids that won’t do it until you move them around a little bit [in] the system until they decide one day, ‘That’s not the way to go,'” Jones said. “I don’t think this bill is going to hurt young Black boys, I think is going to help a lot of young Black boys.”

Others echoed Morey and said honoring the constitution trumps showing struggling people tough love.

“You are not punished before you are found guilty. One of the basic premises of our country is ‘innocent until proven guilty,'” Rep. Amos Quick III (D-Guilford) said. “The disincentive for people to not do wrong cannot be that we tear up the constitution in their face.”

Quick said there are pervasive staff vacancies in county jails across North Carolina, and wondered aloud how employees who are already spread thin are going to supervise an even larger jail population once people are detained while waiting for a judge to set their bail. He said that if mass incarceration worked, if policies ostensibly crafted to reduce crime by putting people in jail did what they were purported to do, the U.S. would be the safest nation in the world.

“Our jails are full,” Quick said. “And yet we find ourselves still not as safe as we would like to be.”

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.