North Carolina General Assembly Week in Review

February 4, 2022

Pardon Our Dust

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The NC General Assembly did not formally convene this week, as legislators and pundits alike anxiously await the state Supreme Court’s ruling on a pivotal redistricting case. Because onlookers have been watching the Supreme Court (and previously, the trial courts and Court of Appeals) so closely, this week we provide a review of the bills from the 2021 legislative session that reformed the state’s criminal justice system. 

While the omicron variant resulted in a significant spike in coronavirus cases statewide, the numbers have sharply begun to decline. As of this morning, in the state of North Carolina, there were 12,385 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. There are 4,490 individuals hospitalized, and sadly, 21,097 confirmed deaths. 75% of the total adult population has been vaccinated with at least two shots. 

As we all continue to feel the effects of the global pandemic and adjust to a new normal, we want to highlight a few ways our clients across North Carolina have worked to support residents and make this time a little easier for those throughout the state. Read more about what our clients are doing to help by clicking here.

For more information on COVID-19 in North Carolina, click here to visit the Department of Health and Human Services website, and be sure to stay up to date on the latest federal guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by clicking here.

Review of 2021 Criminal Justice Reform Bills

For the past several years, North Carolina state government has been led by a bipartisan cadre of leaders with experience in the judicial system, including a Democratic Governor who was previously the state’s Attorney General, and legislators who are criminal defense attorneys, retired judges, civil rights advocates, and mental health professionals. It makes sense that criminal justice reform has been a top priority of policymakers in Raleigh, and over the past two sessions, significant reforms have been made.

Since 2019, the NC General Assembly has pursued reforms to the criminal justice system in North Carolina, particularly in areas affecting juveniles and law enforcement accountability. The first significant piece of legislation was enacted in 2020 when legislators passed the Second Chance Act, which allows District Attorneys to automatically expunge non-violent offenses that were committed before offenders turned 18.

During the 2021 legislative session, multiple bills were adopted, that were the result of years of stakeholder input from the law enforcement community, the Judicial Branch, advisory committees under the Department of Public Safety like the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee, and the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice.

The state budget provided an historic investment in courts across the state, especially in rural districts where DA and court offices were severely understaffed. The spending plan allocated tens of millions to the Judicial Branch’s transformation to eCourts, which is a new integrated case management system that will allow for continuity of court operations – a major upgrade from the paper-based filings previously used. The budget also provides recurring funds for Victim Services Coordinators, another major priority of legislators over the past several years. Additionally, the budget provides additional funding for public defenders in some rural counties experiencing large caseloads of criminal offenders. Furthermore, the budget directs funds to innovative court pilot programs in some counties, such as drug treatment courts.

A few months before the budget was enacted, the Governor signed a comprehensive criminal justice reform package, Senate Bill 300, which was the culmination of multiple bills that were sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats and had been moving through the legislature. Some of the important changes in the bill include:

  • Strengthens law enforcement accountability by enforcing a duty to intervene for LEOs who see other officers using excessive force. The law also creates a public certification, revocation, and suspension database of law enforcement officers, which will include a database of police-involved incidents involving use of force. The database will not be made public and will only be for internal review.
  • Modernizes law enforcement training and certification by requiring an individual applying to be an LEO to undergo a background check. Prospective LEOs will also be required to undergo psychological screening examinations prior to employment, as a result of another bill, House Bill 436.
  • Codifies the right to a speedy trial by modifying the law regulating “first appearance” hearings, which take place when defendants are released, bonded out or acquitted. The law shortens the maximum wait period between commitment to jail and the first appearance hearing to 72 hours.
  • Expedites the process to disclose body camera footage in police-involved incidents that result in death or serious injury. Relatives of the victim can request the disclosure of the footage and a judge must render a decision on the disclosure within seven days. If the judge denies the request because of a pending investigation, a review can be conducted.
  • Restructures certain city and county ordinances that impose criminal penalties. The law adds a compliance defense for offenders, meaning the person may not be found guilty of the ordinance violation if the person proves they complied with the local ordinance 30 days from the initial violation, or if they provide proof that they are seeking assistance to address unemployment, mental health, or substance abuse factors.
  • Establishes the Bipartisan North Carolina Legislative Working Group on Criminal Law Recodification which will study the state’s criminal laws and make legislative recommendations.

The comprehensive criminal justice package has been hailed as a bipartisan success that brought together entities from across the ideological spectrum to implement meaningful reforms. However, it was not the only meaningful bill that passed during last year’s session.

One of the most impactful bills that was passed and signed into law by the Governor was Senate Bill 207, an omnibus package of recommendations from the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee (JJAC). The most impactful result of the bill is the “Raise the Age” component that will keep children under the age of 10 from being sentenced in district or superior court, and instead keep them in juvenile jurisdiction. The bill also allows for prosecutorial discretion in deciding whether to transfer a 16- or 17-year-old to superior court for a felony offense. With the passage of this component, North Carolina no longer has the youngest minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction.

Another emotional bill that passed was House Bill 608, which limits the use of restraints on pregnant women who are incarcerated. The bill also stipulates that the Department of Public Safety and the correctional facility must provide sufficient food and dietary supplements for pregnant incarcerated women.

There were a multitude of other bills that passed that also affect different faucets of the entire criminal justice system. House Bill 132 requires the individual Department of Social Services (DSS) directors to make reasonable efforts to place juvenile siblings who are removed in the same home. House Bill 404 extends immunity to 911 operators to protect them from liability for any damages in a civil action suit except in cases of canton misconduct. House Bill 312 changes the requirement for becoming a sheriff to clarify that an individual who has been convicted of a felony, regardless of expunction, is ineligible for the office of sheriff. Finally, House Bill 761 increases the penalty from a Class I felony to a Class H felony for breaking or entering into a vehicle owned by a law enforcement agency.

Legislative Meetings

Monday, February 7

1:00PM: House Select Committee on An Education System for North Carolina’s Future
3:30PM: Senate Session
4:00PM: House Session

Wednesday, February 9

9:00AM: Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, Subcommittee on Use and Distribution of Federal COVID Funding