FILE - North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper

(The Center Square) – Defendants in low-level drug cases now could face lighter sentences in North Carolina after Gov. Roy Cooper signed a new law that loosens mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.

Dubbed the First Step Act, House Bill 511 allows judges to reduce the fine and sentence for a defendants who have been convicted and sentenced for drug trafficking or conspiracy to commit drug trafficking since Dec. 1.

A person convicted of drug trafficking in North Carolina faces 25 to 225 months in prison and a fine between $5,000 and $250,000. The new law allows defendants to seek shorter sentences and gives judges more discretion on the penalties. The Administrative Office of the Courts is required to publish an annual report of the number of sentences modified under the act.

As of May 31, 8 percent of North Carolina's prison population was serving time because of drug trafficking charges, including 792 offenders who started their sentences June 1, 2019.

The bill's sponsors said the First Step Act promotes rehabilitation of nonviolent offenders and drug users.

The First Step Act also authorizes the Department of Information Technology to study the collection of criminal justice data.

Cooper also signed a bill Friday that gives teachers step raises and up to $950 in bonuses, but the governor said the measure, which provides all teachers a $350 bonus and recommends he uses federal aid to compensate them with an additional $600, is not enough. 

"I signed this bill because it funds step increases for teachers that have already been promised, but it falls outrageously short on raises we need to give teachers and all school personnel like bus drivers and cafeteria workers," Cooper said in a statement. 

"The Legislature must make educator pay a top priority when they come back in September."

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for four years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.