Saturday, July 20, 2024

NHC representatives express confusion after bipartisan Second Chance Act provision gutted in committee

Four years ago, the General Assembly unanimously passed a bill to automate expunctions of dismissed and “not guilty” charges. But for unclear reasons, the bipartisan provision was removed from the most recent version of the bill. (Courtesy North Carolina General Assembly)

NORTH CAROLINA — Four years ago, the General Assembly unanimously passed a bill to automate expunctions of dismissed and “not guilty” charges. But for unclear reasons, the bipartisan provision was removed from the most recent version of the bill.

READ MORE: ‘Collateral Consequences’: County funds Legal Aid program to assist with expunctions, offer individuals a clean slate

The 2020 North Carolina Second Chance Act was designed to expand eligibility for expunging multiple nonviolent charges that create barriers to employment, housing and other opportunities. 

The bill also updated the petition-based method individuals use to attain expunctions. Because many residents were unable to afford an attorney, didn’t know whether or not they were eligible, and had difficulty navigating the petition process, lawmakers automated expunctions for certain dismissed and “not guilty” charges.

400,000 people acquired automated expunctions in the nine months following the bill’s passage, but technical issues related to file retention led the Administrative Office of the Courts to pause the program. 

AOC convened a working group — including the Conference of District Attorneys, State Bureau of Investigation, Conference of Clerks, Department of Motor Vehicles, attorneys, and advocates — to draft recommendations to address technical issues. Their recommendations were part of SB 565, which passed the senate in 2023. 

Last week, however, the House Judiciary 2 committee passed a version of the bill that repealed the automatic expunction provision. Rep. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover County) a member of the committee, said she was confused by the decision of the chair, Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Mount Airy), to remove the bipartisan working groups’ recommendations.

“I don’t understand that,” she said. “Because you’re going to have many, many people who can’t get a job, can’t move on with their lives.”

At the May 22 committee meeting, Stevens argued the automated expunction provision system would fail to address issues from the 2020 bill. She cited issues with the 2020 bill in which individuals had difficulty proving their charges had been expunged when past charges were found on websites used by landlords and employers. 

Stevens noted she was open to revisiting the provision, but argued it was further complicated by the ongoing rollout of AOC’s eCourts. Technical difficulties with the digitized court record system recently led the Conference of DAs to request its delay.

Advocates from the NC ACLU, NC Justice Center, and Second Chance Alliance spoke at the hearing and argued the updated provision would address those issues. They noted it was unanimously endorsed by a diverse group of stakeholders. Butler similarly spoke at the hearing to argue SB 565 would fix past issues and be unaffected by the eCourts rollout.

PCD asked Stevens why she removed the provision and if any groups or individuals had raised concerns or opposed it, but did not receive a response by press. 

Rep. Ted Davis Jr. introduced the 2020 bill. He described it as a “jobs bill” because it would help individuals excluded from opportunities contribute to the economy. On Wednesday, he told PCD he could not comment on the removal of automatic expunctions until he finds out the rationale for the change.

Chuck Spahos, the general counsel and registered lobbyist for the Conference of DAs, requested legislators support the bill in 2023. Some members of the conference opposed the provision in recent years and requested its delay, arguing it hindered prosecutors’ ability to access dismissed charges. According to Bolts Mag, emails show conference director Kim Spahos sought to repeal the provision in 2022.

PCD asked Spahos if the conference expressed concerns about the provision to House Judiciary 2 members. Stevens has a close relationship to the conference, as she was the group’s Legislator of the Year in 2019 and sponsored a bill to allow the group to have more lobbyists. A response was not received by press.


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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