Gov. Roy Cooper announced Friday morning that he would sign an executive order next month extending the work of the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice.
The group has spent the past two and a half years trying to make the criminal legal system more just and equitable. They produced a report at the end of 2020 with a long list of recommendations for legislators to craft into law.
A few of the suggestions became a reality. Lawmakers passed bills raising the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction from age six to 10, prohibiting the use of restraints on pregnant incarcerated women who are in their second and third trimester, and requiring police to intervene when one of their colleagues uses excessive force.
“The bottom line is to reduce crime and keep our communities safe while making sure our system operates fairly and without prejudice,” Cooper told the task force members. “It’s obvious that your work is making significant progress toward those goals. But it’s also very obvious that we are not yet where we need to be.”
Both Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein pointed to racist comments made by Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene in a phone call in 2019 as evidence of the issues still facing North Carolina’s justice system.
“At our core the work has been to further the restoration of trust between law enforcement snd the communities that they serve,” said Stein. “Just recently we’ve seen how devastating it can be when a single sheriff, through his despicable words, shatters people’s confidence that law enforcement will apply the law impartially and without bias. So, the work of TREC remains relevant and urgent.”
Friday’s meeting was set to be the task force’s last.
“Your work has been too important to let this process end, especially when there’s more work to do,” Cooper said, laying out his plans to sign an executive order next month to extend the task force’s work into 2024.
The task force’s next phase of its work will focus on four areas: violence prevention including youth crime reduction and restorative justice; local law enforcement practices and accountability; judicial system policies and practices that result in equitable outcomes; and collection, analysis and dissemination of criminal justice system data.
Before the governor spoke. Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls noted that the task force could look at the Administrative Office of the Court’s decision to charge for criminal justice docket data that used to be free.
Cooper also mentioned President Joe Biden’s decision to pardon thousands who were convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law. The governor credited the task force for being ahead of the curve, recommending in its report that possession of a small amount of cannabis shouldn’t be a crime in North Carolina, a proposal he supports.
“Law enforcement and the criminal justice system are under-resourced right now, and they should be focused on stopping violent crime, drug trafficking and other threats to safe communities,” Cooper said. “We also know that a conviction of simple possession can mar people’s records for life, and maybe even prevent them from getting a job.”
The General Assembly didn’t heed the task force’s recommendations. Cooper said he asked his lawyers to look at state law regarding convictions for simple marijuana possession to assess whether there’s any action —like a pardon — he can take at the executive level.
“In the meantime, while we work to make sure our criminal justice system is fairer, we must be laser focused on stopping the true criminals, those who are committing violent crimes, and particularly gun violence in our communities,” said Cooper.