A step toward right-sizing drug sentencing in NC

Following the lead of Congress and President Donald Trump, North Carolina’s legislators are poised to enact common-sense reforms to sentencing for certain low-level, nonviolent offenders, saving taxpayer dollars while continuing to protect public safety.

Polls show strong public support for these reforms across North Carolina and throughout the nation. Our organization, the bipartisan, nonprofit Justice Action Network, joins with state and national advocacy groups from the right, left, and center in support of House Bill 511, the North Carolina First Step Act.

Under the bill, state judges could use their discretion to reduce penalties for certain drug offenses, but only when the judge determines that the standard minimum sentence for the crime would result in a substantial injustice and is not necessary for the protection of the public.

Under those circumstances, the judge could – but would not have to – reduce the fine, impose a lesser prison term, or suspend the prison term and place the defendant on probation. This could open up doors to prioritizing needed drug treatment for these defendants, rather than costly prison terms, which do little to stem addiction.

The bill applies to certain people convicted of drug trafficking, which is not always as it seems. As the Senate Rules Committee heard in recent testimony, possessing certain amounts of drugs is automatically deemed by state law to be trafficking, even when the person is only a drug addict who needs treatment, not a pusher who should be locked up.

People who break the law must be held accountable for their actions. But for some people, long periods of incarceration make it more likely, not less, that they will commit future crimes. Individuals convicted of low-level offenses, particularly those with substance-abuse and mental health challenges, often see better outcomes with treatment, supervision, and opportunities for a second chance.

HB 511 would give judges a modest amount of discretion to reduce drug sentences that, under current law, can stretch from two to 24 years. Drug addicts need treatment and counseling, not interminable warehousing at taxpayer expense that fails to deliver the public-safety return taxpayers deserve.

Several parties with an interest in maintaining the status quo object to giving judges this small level of discretion. But under the bill, judges – who are elected and can be held accountable if they go too far – would have far less discretion than the district attorneys who decide which charges to file in the first place.

The proposal, which is in line with recent changes in federal law, is truly a “first step,” as its title suggests. It’s a common-sense adjustment that would help reduce our prison population, save taxpayer money, and improve public safety. Conservative states such as Texas, Louisiana, Montana, Georgia, and Oklahoma allow some level of judicial discretion when determining sentencing that is appropriate for the circumstances of each case.

That’s why organizations such as the American Conservative Union, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, and Right on Crime support HB 511, which we urge the General Assembly to enact this session.

A second part of the bill, which has drawn no opposition, authorizes a state study that would collect criminal justice data from jails, courts, and prisons.

This study would identify gaps in the accessibility of data for research purposes and for use by court officials. And it would explore steps to modernize access to criminal-justice data.

This, too, is a common-sense measure intended to promote the accountability, efficiency, and effectiveness of a key part of our state government. And without this data, we cannot know all the parts of our justice system that need enhancing.

Please urge your state legislators to support HB 511, a good first step in making sure that punishment truly fits the crime. Surely if the politicians in Washington can cross the partisan aisle to improve criminal justice, North Carolina’s leaders can, too.

Harris, Executive Director of Justice Action Network, is a former General Counsel of the Republican Party of Kentucky.