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Ambitious criminal justice reform agenda spurred by George Floyd murder makes little headway in NC

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May of 2020 and the demonstrations that ensued in scores of communities helped spur efforts across the nation during the months that followed to reassess systems of policing and criminal justice.

North Carolina State Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, D-Mecklenburg, says the Floyd murder illustrated an injustice in policing that is both “frightening” to a lot of people in the country and badly in need of attention – a reality that the April 2021 killing of Andrew Brown Jr. by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies served to further emphasize.

Mohammed credits demonstrators for raising awareness about the failures in the criminal justice system. “I think but what’s happened is that as a country in a bipartisan way, most Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated folks, I think they’re recognizing that we definitely need some sort of accountability and transparency when it comes to policing, ” Mohammed said. 

The enhanced awareness Mohammed described seemed to find an important outlet in June of 2020 when Gov. Roy Cooper established a Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. That group, in turn, met dozens of times over the months that followed and ultimately produced a long and detailed report and an ambitious list of several dozen recommended law changes designed to “help eliminate racial bias and create fairer outcomes for Black people and communities of color, while maintaining public safety.”

Sixteen months after the Floyd murder and nine months after the task force released its recommendations, however, the list of concrete reforms passed into law in North Carolina remains extremely limited.

While state lawmakers did introduce a slew of criminal justice reform bills in 2021, only a few have become law. Many others were significantly diluted or buried in committee. Policy Watch interviewed legislators, criminal justice advocates and lobbyists who described some of the successes and failures of criminal justice reform efforts and their hopes for a less punitive system. (Scroll down for links to lists of some of the most noteworthy bills that have passed, stalled, or remain pending.)

Keeping young children in the justice system

One issue that illustrates the challenges facing reform advocates involves the treatment of very young children accused of crimes. Rep. Marcia Morey, a Democrat and former Chief District Court Judge for Durham County, has for years advocated for a fairer and more compassionate juvenile justice system. In her first year as a legislator in 2017, the General Assembly passed a bill to raise the minimum age from 16 to 18 at which juveniles can be tried in adult court for most offenses. 

This year, Morey filed a bill (HB 261) to raise the minimum age for children to enter the criminal court system. Under her proposal, only children older than 12 would be prosecuted criminally. 

However, Morey said representatives who formerly or currently work in law enforcement told her the bill was a “nonstarter,” and that the minimum age needed to be no more than 10 for the bill to gain traction. She amended the bill to raise the age to 10, but it was never heard in the judiciary committee to which it was assigned.

Rep. Marcia Morey

Morey pointed out that her bill aligned with a recommendation produced by the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, whose members are appointed by the legislature. 

“For the legislature… to override the very group that they’ve appointed to make recommendations in the best interests of children in courts because of DAs and sheriffs is an anomaly,” Morey said. 

However, Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association said his group never took an official position on the bill and deferred to the Conference of District Attorneys, a state agency.  

Chuck Spahos, a lobbyist for the conference, expressed concerns about juvenile offenses, arguing that the state needed the carve outs for 8- and 9-year olds who commit serious crimes. 

Both Caldwell and Spahos said some of the committee recommendations don’t promote public safety or improve the criminal justice system; others aren’t practical.

Instead of directly opposing bills, both said their approach is to work with legislators to ensure that the recommendations are “fairly balanced and are workable in the real world.” 

The legislature passed another bill (SB 207) that originally proposed to remove all children under 10 from the juvenile justice system. But a last-minute amendment allows children ages 8 and 9 to still be prosecuted for the highest level felony charges, which include murder, rape, burglary, and robbery. 

“The bill that was finally passed, I’m disappointed with,” Morey said. “I’m happy to remove  6- and 7-  year-olds entirely, but to claim that  8-and  9-year-olds don’t have capacity for misdemeanors and felonies, but they may have capacity for serious felonies, philosophically does not make sense.” 

Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed sponsored the bill that was finally passed. He described the bill as “drastically watered down” in the House. 

Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, D-Mecklenburg

“I’m not sure if it’s necessarily Republicans or Democrats, or even some of these conferences,” Mohammed said. “But I think it could potentially be a select few of legislative numbers, or select few of these folks advocacy organizations… It could be from the law enforcement community, or what have you, who essentially create obstacles and hurdles and drag their feet when it comes to progress.”

House Speaker Pro Tem Sarah Stevens, a Republican representing Alleghany, Surry and Wilkes counties, insisted on keeping 8- and 9-year-olds accused of serious felonies in the juvenile justice system to “get them help,” according to a report by the Associated Press

“If you want your heart strings tugged, think about the victims as well,” Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, said on the House floor, WRAL reported. McNeill became a state representative after over 30 years in the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office, according to his LinkedIn profile.

McNeill and Stevens couldn’t be reached for comment.

Daniel Bowes, director of policy and advocacy at the ACLU of NC, said the Conference of District Attorneys and Stevens waited until shortly before the final votes to “ambush” the bill by adding the carve outs. 

“We knew we were going to win that vote, it was like 11 to three, and then all of a sudden, Chuck Spahos rolls up in there with Rep. Sarah Stevens and testified on the bill and just make the point basically saying ‘There are monsters out there, and y’all were making a mistake’, and it was enough to just stop that bill in its tracks,” Bowes said.

Conflicting priorities

While many proposals sought to respond to the injustice exemplified in the Floyd killing by de-emphasizing harsh punishment and imprisonment, other measures took things in the opposite direction. As Policy Watch previously reported, House Speaker Tim Moore and Rep. McNeill pushed a bill through both houses – HB 805  – that would increase punishments for those who engage in or incite riots, despite opposition from civil rights advocates, who said the bill would deter peaceful protests.

Gov. Cooper vetoed the bill last month.

Rev. Bradley Hunt

Rev. Bradley Hunt of the NC NAACP said at a press conference before the gubernatorial veto that many protests occurred against “state-sanctioned violence waged against people of color.”

“Representative Tim Moore, Representative Allen McNeill, Representative Charles Miller and Representative John Sauls, you all need to understand that the protesters are not the issue here,” he said. “The real issue here is structural, systematic and systemic racism. And until we confront the elephant in the room, you will find yourself having to distract, deflect and deceive, over and over again.”

This critique was also reflected in the recommendation of Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice that law enforcement focus on de-escalation and the facilitation of peaceful demonstrations when protesters are exercising their First Amendment Rights. 

The Sheriffs’ Association, however, supported the bill. While the task force recommended de-escalation measures, Caldwell said it did not sufficiently emphasize that individuals don’t have the right to assault law enforcement officers and to resist arrest. In a similar vein, he said the association also supports another bill sponsored by McNeill that would criminalize communicating threats of harm to law enforcement officers.

In addition to the, at best, mixed success of reform bills, some budget items also shined a light on the priorities of the legislature’s GOP majority. For example, the Senate and House budget proposals would both pour $35 million into blocking cell phone service at seven correctional facilities. 

Morey introduced an amendment  to repurpose the funds to install air conditioning in prisons, but was unsuccessful.

After a hasty subcommittee meeting for appropriations with little input from Democratic lawmakers, the provisions were rolled into the full budget, which remains the subject of negotiations nearly three months into the new fiscal year.

Both Morey and Mohammed expressed frustration over the role that partisan politics play in hindering criminal justice reforms. They said reform and racial equity should not be partisan matters, but that Democrats find it difficult to get bills even heard – much less passed – without Republican support. 

“You don’t need legislation to do better at the end of the day, whether it’s the district attorney’s office or law enforcement agency,” Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed said. “I’m hopeful that a lot of these sheriff’s offices and police departments will look at the recommendation from the Task Force on Racial Equity.”

But when it comes to legislation, lobbyists representing law enforcement bodies continue to espouse a hard line. As Policy Watch previously reported, for example, the Conference of District Attorneys lobbied against a proposal to eliminate the sentence of life without parole for juveniles – this despite that fact that 91{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} of people serving such sentences in North Carolina are people of color, according to a 2020 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology article. Eighty percent of the total are Black or African Americans. 

Much more work to do

Morey is a member of the Task Force for Racial Equity in North Carolina. “We have 125 recommendations and there are a lot of things we have not gotten to, especially about jury selection and sentencing disparities,” she said. 

Daniel Bowes

Together with Democratic colleagues, Morey also proposed legislation that exceeded the scope of the task force recommendations, such as abolishing the death penalty. 

Bowes recalled at the signing ceremony of SB 300, one of the most significant criminal justice reform bills, that Gov. Roy Cooper told advocates and legislators present that he recognized the strides in racial justice, and there’s more left to do. 

Sen. Danny Britt, one of the primary sponsors of SB 300, said he took some recommendations on necessary criminal justice reforms by task Force on Racial Equity and other groups, and brought in stakeholders, including the Conference of District Attorneys, and the sheriffs’ association to put “confines” around these measures.

“I should give a lot of praise to Sen. Danny Britt, who was willing to push the DAs, but at the end of the day he was only willing to go as far as they would allow him to go,” Bowes said. “That’s the dynamic that I’m not surprised to see, but that is highly problematic.”

Bills that Gov. Cooper signed into law

Pending bills

Stalled bills

*Conference of DAs supported
**Conference of DAs and the NC Sheriffs’ Association supported
*** Sheriffs’ Association supported
****Conference of DAs opposed

Note: these lists are partial and include only some of the hundreds of criminal justice bills introduced during the 2021 legislative session.