With 160,000 people behind bars, or on probation or parole, North Carolina has a significant number of people caught up in the criminal justice system. It’s certainly not one the worst states on this front, but there is room for improvement.
It’s common sense, and important for the integrity of the criminal justice system, that people are not put away because there are too many laws that are vague or impossible for the average person to be aware of. Even more concerning for conservatives, the state bureaucracy can create new rules and regulations and make violating them a crime.
With the rapid growth of federal and state laws, and regulations, it is already nearly impossible for anyone to avoid breaking one law or another – often times without intent or knowledge. As such, cleaning up North Carolina’s criminal code to address this overcriminalization has understandably been a focus of the state legislature, which has created a Recodification Working Group to address the issue. But step one is to stop making the problem worse. That’s where Senate Bill 584 comes in.
The legislation stops new local laws from automatically being classified as criminal. It requires the legislature to review any new regulatory rules where a violation results in criminal penalties. And it requires that any new criminal laws be properly codified, if they are not, a defendant can use a “mistake of law” defense.
“The practical effect of this provision is to ensure no new crimes are ‘hidden’ in obscure corners of the General Statutes. By centralizing the location of new crimes, SB 584 provides better notice to the public of new crimes and allows for easier supervision of the growth of the criminal code.”
SB 584 does not affect laws already on the books; it simply stops the over-criminalization problem from getting worse. In that way, it is a very conservative approach that should earn broad support. The Senate overwhelming approved SB 584 and it now awaits final passage in the House.
Also on the criminal justice reform front, the House still has the Second Chance Act awaiting passage. This is another smart, conservative criminal justice reform that will allow former nonviolent offenders who have gone years without re-offending to clear their records.
With legislative session in Raleigh winding down, it is critical this legislation makes it across the finish line. Otherwise, North Carolinians will watch another year go by where criminal and regulatory law becomes larger and more complex, making the task of fixing the code more difficult.