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.
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.”
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.”