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The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. UNC Board vote on Civil Rights Center the latest move in an ideological crusade

Two and half years ago, the UNC Board of Governors voted to fire widely respected UNC President Tom Ross.

The move by the handpicked board of the Republican legislative majorities came with no public notice and there was no reason given for forcing Ross to resign.

The board chair said after the meeting that Ross had been doing a wonderful job. But everybody in Raleigh knew the reason.

Ross’ firing was the beginning of the Republican assault on the university system with most of the focus on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, long derided by forces on the Right as a key center of progressive thought in the state. [Read more…]

2. Parent of special needs child battles troubled Charlotte charter school
Case raises questions of whether charters are complying with state and federal law

Skye, a 10-year-old from Charlotte, was vomiting stomach bile when her mother decided something must change.

LauraLee McIntosh saw the health of her daughter, diagnosed with a rare chromosome condition and mitochondrial disease, declining steadily along with her weight. McIntosh blames the Charlotte charter school that refused to loosen its strict lunch policies to allow a modified lunch for Skye, despite doctor’s orders.

Skye, whose symptoms include neurological problems, could not adapt to the school’s rigid healthy and organic lunch requirements. Skye’s response to various textures and tastes made meal time difficult, so she all but stopped eating at Veritas, while school leadership refused to make adjustments. [Read more…]

3. Even after revisions, Atlantic Coast Pipeline plan still threatens NC rivers, drinking water

The temperature in Rocky Mount was tipping 100 degrees and the hallway of Nash Community College was hot, as it held hundreds of people lined up to speak on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Nothing sounded better than a cold glass of water.

But these days, with contaminants known and unknown flowing from their taps, North Carolinians can no longer take clean water for granted.

Worries about their drinking water, as well as property values and environmental damage, compelled hundreds of people to attend the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s two recent public hearings on water quality and buffer requirements for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. [Read more…]


4. Republicans silent in wake of court order to draw new maps in one month

Republican legislative leaders are staying mum about a federal court ruling that requires them to submit new maps by September 1.

The date is almost three months in advance of the deadline they asked for, though the three-judge panel did deny a request for a special election – a win for GOP lawmakers who argued against such a request after delaying drawing new maps until the 11th hour.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and Redistricting Committee chairmen Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) have not responded to an email request seeking comment about the court’s timeline. They also have not released any public statements.

Democrats and advocates, on the other hand, have both commended and criticized the court’s ruling.[Read more…]

5. What the fight over fair elections is really all about
As NC looks at election rules and redistricting, a powerful new book reminds us why these issues are even on the table

This is an especially busy week in the fight for fair elections in North Carolina. Late yesterday, a panel of three federal judges issued an order in the case of North Carolina v. Covington – a challenge to North Carolina’s unconstitutionally gerrymandered legislative districts. The ruling came just hours after the North Carolina State Board of Elections conducted a hearing on a set of new proposed rules that could rein in some of the worst voter suppression tactics employed by conservatives during the 2016 election.

With any luck, we could be on the verge of some important breakthroughs in the effort to enfranchise voters and reclaim our democracy. [Read more…]

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Cooper signs Senate bill to help some North Carolinians expunge criminal records

Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday signed Senate Bill 445 into law, making it easier for some North Carolinians with criminal records to access expunctions. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

North Carolinians with certain criminal records will now have an easier time accessing expungements.

Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday signed into law Senate Bill 445, a bipartisan measure significantly expanding access to expungements, a process that erases criminal convictions in the eyes of the law.

“The criminal justice system should not end in incarceration; it should end in restoration,” Cooper said at ceremony held at the State Capital. “We have to take affirmative steps to make sure that re-entry into society is successful, not only because it’s the right thing to do, the moral thing to do, but it’s the safe thing to do for our communities.”

The changes to expungement eligibility will provide meaningful relief to a significant portion of the estimated 2 million residents with criminal records, particularly men and women denied jobs, housing and other resources and opportunities based on charges that were dismissed or disposed “not guilty,” but will remain on their criminal records.

“We commend lawmakers across party lines for continuing to restore opportunities to individuals with criminal records striving to be prosperous, law-abiding community members,” said Daniel Bowes, attorney for the Second Chance Initiative at the NC Justice Center, the parent organization of NC Policy Watch.

Sen. Floyd McKissick and NC Justice Center’s Daniel Bowes pose with a photo of the late Umar Muhammad, who was an advocate of SB445. (Photo by Elise Elliot)

Bowes helped write SB445. He also thanked several of the lawmakers for their ardent support of the measure, including Rep. John Faircloth and Senators Floyd McKissick, Tommy Tucker and Angela Bryant.

Numerous lawmakers and other criminal justice stakeholders, including some district attorneys, judges and many employees from the Department of Public Safety, were in attendance at the ceremony.

Once expunged, an individual may truthfully deny their charge or conviction ever occurred in most circumstances, according to the Justice Center. SB445 reduces the wait time for expunction of a first-time nonviolent misdemeanor or felony conviction from 15 years to 5 years for a misdemeanor conviction and 10 years for a felony conviction. The new law also provides for immediate expunction of all charges that are dismissed or disposed “not guilty.”

Individuals in North Carolina are often charged with felony drug offenses but plead guilty to misdemeanor drug charges. The felony charges, though dismissed, stay on their record.

“What we’ve seen is that the felony dismissed charges are more of a problem for employment, housing and other resources or opportunities than the misdemeanor drug conviction,” Bowes said. “The collateral consequences of a felony dismissed charge are often more severe than the direct consequences of the misdemeanor charge they were convicted of.”

SB445 will help to change that.

“We are excited to celebrate these new laws for the positive impacts they will have in the lives of tens of thousands of individuals and families across our state,” Bowes said. “But our ultimate goal is for men and women with criminal records to have a fair chance at gainful employment, safe and affordable housing, school admission, and other essential opportunities without having to hide their criminal record.”

Pictured are SB445 and a Raise the Age proclamation. Gov. Roy Cooper signed both documents at a ceremony today. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

McKissick also shared a few words about the ceremony on Facebook. He thanked everyone who worked on the bill, including Bowes and colleague Bill Rowe, General Counsel and Deputy Director of Advocacy at the Justice Center.

“This bill will provide a second chance to thousands of people who have paid their debt to society and who have earned and deserve an opportunity to obtain gainful employment and to get their lives back on track by having their criminal records erased under certain circumstances,” he wrote.

Corey Purdie, a North Carolina resident said he was in awe at the ceremony when the audience stood and applauded as Cooper signed the HB445.

“Though this bill does not include someone like myself who has multiple felony convictions from a life I left behind more than 20 years ago — it is a huge victory and I am grateful for my brothers and sisters whose lives will be rewarded by this great day,” he added.

Cooper at the ceremony said that criminal records”cannot be a blanket dark mark against somebody.”

After signing the bill into law, Cooper also signed a Raise the Age proclamation. Lawmakers recently passed a bill to raise the age of juvenile prosecution but it won’t go into effect until 2020.

“North Carolina might be the last, but we must vow not to be the least,” he said. “We’ve got to be committed to our criminal justice system to make it work the way we want it to work and that means investing in resources.”

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Coming up: Redistricting to take center stage next week

Next week will be big for those keeping track of North Carolina’s racial gerrymandering issues.

To start, the House and Senate Committees on Redistricting will meet jointly at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in room 643 of the Legislative Office Building in downtown Raleigh.

An agenda has not yet been released, but the committees were selected to redraw the House and Senate maps that were ruled unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The meeting comes one day before a hearing set in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. A three-judge panel will hear from all parties in the racial gerrymandering case, North Carolina v. Covington.

The panel will discuss a timeline for new maps to be drawn and decide whether a special election will be held to remedy the constitutional violations, as well as take up other matters in the case. Each party will be given 90 minutes to argue the issues and may call witnesses.

Witness lists and any further points made via court documents must be filed with the court by the end of the day today.

Attorney General Josh Stein, who is representing both the state of North Carolina and the State Board of Elections, plans to call witness Kim Westbrook Strach, Executive Director of the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, according to a document filed today.

The hearing is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. in Greensboro.

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U.S. Supreme Court: NC’s law banning sex offenders from social media unprecedented, unconstitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down a General Assembly statute that they said “impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment.”

In Packingham v. North Carolina, Lester Gerard Parkingham Jr., a registered sex offender in the state, was charged after Durham police found a Facebook page he created. He was convicted based on a post in which he celebrated the dismissal of a traffic ticket, declaring “God is Good!”

The question before the U.S. Supreme Court was about the constitutionality of the law that makes it a felony for all registered sex offenders to access such sites, including YouTube and nytimes.com. The answer was clear and unanimous.

“A fundamental principle of the First Amendment is that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen, and then, after reflection, speak and listen once more,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the opinion. “The Court has sought to protect the right to speak in this spatial context.”

Kennedy acknowledges that in the past, there has been some difficulty determining the most important spaces in a spatial sense for the exchange of views, but notes that today that answer is clear: “It is cyberspace — the ‘vast democratic forums of the Internet’ in general … and social media in particular.”

Kennedy points out that seven in ten American adults use at least one Internet social networking service.

“Social media offers ‘relatively unlimited, low-cost capacity for communication of all kinds,'” Kennedy wrote. “On Facebook, for example, users can debate religion and politics with their friends and neighbors or share vacation photos. On LinkedIn, users can look for work, advertise for employees, or review tips on entrepreneurship. And on Twitter, users can petition their elected representatives and otherwise engage with them in a direct manner. Indeed, Governors in all 50 States and almost every Member of Congress have set up accounts for this purpose. … In short, social media users employ these websites to engage in a wide array of protected First Amendment activity on topics ‘as diverse as human thought.'”

Kennedy wrote that “the Cyber Age is a revolution of historic proportions, we cannot appreciate yet its full dimensions and vast potential to alter how we think, express ourselves, and define who we want to be.”

“This case is one of the first this Court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern Internet,” he added. “As a result, the Court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.” Read more

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More than 80 percent of NC voters do not want gun laws weakened

The overwhelming majority of North Carolina voters do not support legislation making its way through the General Assembly that would abolish the requirement to get a permit to carry a concealed handgun.

The News & Observer reports that two separate polls find that over 80 percent of voters oppose the proposal that would also allow 18-year-olds to carry a loaded, hidden handgun.

Currently you have to be 21 to apply for a permit.

Many law enforcement officials are also opposed to the idea of making it easier to buy a handgun, including Guilford County Sheriff B.J. Barnes.

The House is likely to vote on the bill this week, when we will find out if they are listening to their constituents or the gun lobbyists–which seem to have a different view than most gun owners, including a former Marine quoted in the News & Observer story.

John “Curly” Brazelton of Havelock, a former Marine who belongs to a hunting club, said in an interview with The N&O last week that everyone in his hunting club opposes the idea of eliminating concealed-carry permits.

“We all have them,” Brazelton said. “We have the best law in the country right now.”