(The Center Square) – Two measures that would revamp North Carolina's justice system passed the state Senate on Tuesday.
The Senate voted unanimously to approve the First Step Act and Second Chance Act amid new momentum in addressing systemic and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
The Second Chance Act would allow certain felonies and misdemeanors committed before Dec. 1, 2019, to be expunged from a juvenile's record. It also would eliminate barriers that limit certain nonviolent crimes to be removed from an adult's record. The First Step Act overturns a portion of the state's mandatory minimum sentencing statute.
"We all need second chances," said Sen. Natalie Murdock, D-Durham. "If people are to truly re-enter society after serving their time, they should have a real opportunity to have a second chance."
If the Second Chance Act becomes law, starting Dec. 1, people with criminal records would be able to seek the expungement of more than one misdemeanor conviction after seven years instead of waiting five years for each misdemeanor, or 10 years for one felony. It also would remove a record of an offense, once the case is dismissed (except for a plea deal), or the person is found not guilty, starting Dec. 1, 2021. It does not apply to violent or sexual crimes or those involving impaired driving.
Sen. Danny Britt Jr., R-Columbus, said the expungement bill removes obstacles for North Carolinians who struggle to find employment after their past.
"This is one of the biggest jobs acts that we are going to pass this year," said Britt, who sponsored the bill. "This is going to help tens of thousands of citizens, every single year, just in the automatic expungement piece alone."
The measure received bipartisan support from the General Assembly. Members of the Senate applauded after the final vote to concur with the House version, 47-0, was announced.
The House approved the Second Chance Act with a 119-0 vote last week. It originally passed the Senate in May 2019 but stalled in the House in August. It now heads to Gov. Roy Cooper's desk.
Britt also sponsored the First Step Act, which he said was inspired by legislation signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2018.
The law would allow judges to decide whether to sentence a defendant in a low-level drug offense case under the habitual offender sentencing guidelines.
Under current law, a person who has pled guilty or has been convicted of three felonies is considered a habitual felon and is subject to a sentence for a felony class that is four times higher than what they were convicted of, but no higher than a class C.
Britt said the First Step Act promotes rehabilitation of nonviolent offenders and drug users.
Ongoing national protests has prompted Cooper and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, to launch task forces to examine ways to address racial injustices and police reform.
Britt criticized Cooper on Tuesday about for his role in approving some of the legislation behind the habitual felony laws when Cooper was a state senator in the 1990s.
"Those complaining today about over-incarceration can draw a straight line back to Roy Cooper for the past two decades of failed policies," Britt said. "I hope now-Gov. Cooper signs into law the Republican-led legislation to overturn the disastrous policies he implemented."
The First Step now heads to the House for approval.