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Expunging arrests would be easier under bill approved by Senate

May 9, 2019

Legislation that would loosen the expunction process for a slew of crimes, a priority for criminal justice reform advocates this session, unanimously passed the Senate on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 562, known as “The Second Chance Act,” would make it easier for people to have criminal charges removed from their record if those charges were dropped or they were acquitted. Under current law, those charges stay on someone’s record unless they hire an attorney to have them removed.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said many people can’t afford to do that, so the legislation would make the removal automatic.

“We need to make sure when these charges are dismissed against people, when they’re found not guilty, they are not burdened with that. It shouldn’t be a scarlet letter that follows them the rest of their lives,” McKissick said.

The measure would also allow people with non-violent criminal records to get those record expunged, if they’ve had no other charges within 10 years after they’ve served their sentences and paid their fines. The change wouldn’t apply to violent or sexual offenses or to traffic violations.

Sponsor Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, a former prosecutor, called the proposal a jobs bill, noting past crimes can scuttle attempts to get hired or even rent an apartment.

“It gives folks who’ve made some mistake at some point in their life and have had a significant amount of time pass since that mistake (was) made to re-enter the workforce, to be able to apply to rent apartments, to be able to be able to apply for jobs,” Britt said.

Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, said the bill would help thousands of people return to being productive members of society. He told the story of a constituent of his who got a low-level felony as a teenager.

“This young man’s 21 years old. He’s got nothing else on his record. He can’t get into college. He can’t hardly get a driver’s license. He can’t get a job,” McInnis said.

Advocates rallied Tuesday at the legislature for the bill’s passage.

It follows North Carolina’s “Raise the Age” push. The state was the last in the U.S. to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, something the legislature voted to change two years ago.

The upcoming state budget includes tens of millions of dollars to fund that change starting later this year.

District attorneys have expressed some concerns about the wording of Senate Bill 562, worried that it could expunge charges in plea deals where some charges are dropped in exchange for a guilty plea on others, so this language may change.

The bill would also expand expungements for misdemeanors and minor felonies committed by 16- and 17-year-olds, making those easier to wipe off a person’s record.

There are some concerns about the crimes included, but there is bipartisan support for the underlying idea. A spokesman for Koch Industries, a company owned by the Republican mega-funders Charles and David Koch, spoke in favor of the bill Tuesday, as did the American Conservative Union.

The Kochs and some other prominent conservatives have pushed for criminal justice reforms in recent years.

Senators also heard from a Charlotte woman who said she’s stayed out of trouble and off drugs for 10 years. Kristie Puckett Williams said she’s earned a master’s degree, but a crime in her past means she can’t volunteer at her son’s school.

“I’m locked out of things every day of my life,” she told the committee.

Democrats and Republicans on the committee said minor felonies committed as a juvenile can change a person’s life, making it hard to get a job or even an apartment.

“This is a jobs bill,” said Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, a bill co-sponsor.

Expungement petitions would cost $175 and couldn’t be filed until a person’s sentence is complete and restitution is paid. Crimes that require sex offender registration wouldn’t be eligible under the bill. Neither would traffic infractions, partly because of the sheer volume of paperwork that would generate, and partly because of the way the auto insurance industry sets rates based on driver histories.

This bill is one of several that criminal justice reform advocates are pushing this session, and a number of groups gathered outside the General Assembly Tuesday for a rally expected to draw more than 1,000 people.

The deadline for legislation to pass at least one chamber of the General Assembly to stay alive for the two-year legislative session comes later this week, and a number of bills on these advocates’ wish list are likely to die.

Among the priorities for rally organizers: