NC legislature approves raft of criminal justice reforms

Multiple police reforms and an increase in the age threshold for juvenile prosecution are on the way to the governor.

Posted Updated
Court and legal
Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina legislature finalized a package of criminal justice reforms Tuesday, creating a new duty to intervene for law enforcement officers who see another officer use excessive force and raising the state’s threshold age for juvenile prosecutions.

The measures had wide bipartisan support, including support from law enforcement, though some advocates said the policing reforms don't go far enough or address systemic racism in the legal system. The bills won final passage on unanimous votes in the state Senate, and they head now to Gov. Roy Cooper, who is expected to sign them into law.

In the past, North Carolina has forced children as young as 6 into court, the lowest age set by law in the country. Senate Bill 207 would raise that to 8 for the most serious felonies, and 10 for lesser accusations. Some hoped to move the threshold up to 10 years old, but that proved a bridge too far for some of the more conservative members of the legislature's Republican majority.

The few young people who commit the most serious violent and sexual crimes "need services better provided by the the court system," Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, who sponsored the measure, said after Tuesday's vote.

The Senate also finalized Senate Bill 300, which has dozens of policing reforms, including new officer training and new databases to track problem officers. There's also the new duty to intervene and a change in the way family members access police video footage when a relative is hurt or killed by police.

Many of the ideas in this bill emerged from study committees state leaders set up in the wake of George Floyd's murder in police custody in Minnesota last summer and the ensuing protests and riots. House Speaker Tim Moore had a group, as did the governor. Cooper's group came back with far more recommendations than are included in the bill, but Attorney General Josh Stein, who co-chaired the effort, called the bill that passed Tuesday "significant process."

He also thanked Republican lawmakers who helped craft the measure, including Britt.

"One law alone can't improve every part of our criminal justice system, but this law will make our state safer and more just," Stein said in a news release.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union called Senate Bill 300 "a missed opportunity to transformatively address systemic racism in North Carolina's criminal legal system" and noted that the databases and other oversight provisions "generally bar public access to critical information, undermining the opportunity for real accountability."

Daniel Bowes, the ACLU of North Carolina's policy director, said in a statement that the bill "makes several meaningful changes to law enforcement oversight and criminal procedures," but he also said law enforcement blocked crucial reforms.

Bowes pushed back against lawmakers who have said, repeatedly, that reforms would help weed out the small percentage of bad officers.

"The law enforcement training and oversight provisions in SB 300 rely on and perpetuate the falsehoods that the failings of the criminal legal system are the result of ‘a few bad apples’ and that the police can police themselves," Bowes said.

These bills are part of a continuum of criminal justice reforms the legislature's Republican majority has passed over the last decade. Britt said more changes may be needed, but he was pleased with both the raise the age bill and the broader Senate Bill 300.

"There's always potential to try to make it better than what it is," Britt said. "Until you see how they practically play out in application, it's really hard to say what else might need to be changed."

Britt also noted a bill still pending this legislative session that would make it easier for people with suspended driver's licenses to get them back. That bill was once scheduled for a House vote Tuesday, but it was dropped from the calendar and sent back to committee.

Senate Bill 300 is a wide-ranging measure. Here are some other things it does:

  • It creates a new duty for law enforcement officers to intervene if they see another officer using excessive force.
  • It creates a public database of law enforcement officer certification suspensions and revocations.
  • It creates a new state-level database of any use of force resulting in death or serious injury and require police departments and sheriff’s offices across the state to supply information on these “critical incidents” to the state Department of Justice
  • It requires law enforcement agencies to create an “early warning” system within their agency to monitor complaints against officers as well as firearm discharges and use of force.
  • It lays out a process to have all law enforcement officer fingerprints entered in state and federal databases.
  • It requires that material that calls an officer’s credibility into such question that a prosecutor isn’t comfortable putting them on the stand be reported to a law enforcement standards commission and requires that commission to notify other agencies and district attorneys if the officer transfers to another agency. This material is called Giglio material, named after a court precedent.
  • It requires psychological screening when officers are certified and new training on mental health.
  • It requires the State Bureau of Investigation to investigate deaths at the hands of law enforcement as well as deaths in state prisons or county jails, when the governor, a law enforcement agency head, a district attorney or the commissioner of prisoners requests it.
  • It expands mandatory training to include mental health, community policing, minority sensitivity and the new duty to intervene.
  • It reduces the time allowed before a first appearance in front of a judge from 96 to 72 hours and requires first appearances in misdemeanor cases.
  • It increases penalties for resisting an officer if the resistance causes an officer to be injured.
  • It implements a public awareness campaign on how to “interact lawfully with law enforcement.”

The Senate also gave final approval Tuesday to House Bill 536, which is identical to parts of Senate Bill 300, but not nearly as broad. The House passed a handful of policing bills this session that are identical to various sections of the Senate bill.


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