A step forward on criminal law reform

On Monday night, the North Carolina Senate passed SB 584, a criminal law reform bill that represents an important step toward creating a more effective, efficient, and fair criminal justice system.

Right now, local governments and some administrative agencies have the power to create new crimes on their own. Some of these crimes are redundant. Many local ordinances criminalize things like trespassing in a park, littering, or defrauding a taxi driver. But these acts are already criminal under statewide law.

Other local ordinances criminalize behavior that probably shouldn’t be criminal at all. Local laws banning begging or sleeping in a public place seem to criminalize poverty. Some towns have made it a crime to own three or more dogs on a lot smaller than two-thirds of an acre. Or to allow your grass to grow taller than ten inches. These behaviors may be annoying to your neighbor—but do they really deserve a Class 3 Misdemeanor? Should you really face severely diminished job prospects because you forgot to mow your lawn?

SB 584 and its counterpart, HB 1010, would fix these problems by requiring the General Assembly’s approval for all new crimes. If these bills become law, local governments could still make and enforce ordinances. Regulatory agencies could still make and enforce rules. But no law would carry criminal sanctions (or the collateral consequences they entail) without approval from the General Assembly. This would make our criminal laws more unified, more democratic, and more transparent.

These bills are a good thing for our state. Kudos to the sponsors—Senators Andy Wells and Warren Daniel (SB 584); Representatives Dennis Riddell, Marcia Morey, and Joe John (HB 1010)—for their leadership. And kudos to the 29 senators who voted yesterday to bring more common-sense criminal law reform to North Carolina.

Mike Schietzelt / Legal Fellow

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