Cooper signs law making it easier for some to clear criminal slates

A very long line of people waited in 2016 to complete pre-registration forms to have convictions expunged from their criminal records.
A very long line of people waited in 2016 to complete pre-registration forms to have convictions expunged from their criminal records. N&O file photo

Some people who have been convicted of non-violent crimes, done their time and showed that they can stay out of trouble with the law could soon have an easier and shorter path to getting their record cleared from public view.

Gov. Roy Cooper signed a law on Friday that standardizes the process for some people to have their criminal records “expunged.” Expungement means that the record of an arrest or criminal conviction essentially disappears from public view. It makes it easier for people applying for jobs or higher education.

“Criminal justice shouldn’t end at incarceration. It should end at restoration,” Cooper said. “We want North Carolinians who have corrected their mistakes to go on to live purposeful, productive lives.”

The new law takes effect on Dec. 1.

It brings more uniformity to the petition that people must use to have their records cleared. It reduces the waiting time for expungement for a first-time non-violent felony to 10 years from 15. It lessens the wait to five years for a nonviolent misdemeanor and eliminates a restriction on someone obtaining multiple expungements if prior charges were dismissed or the person was acquitted in court.

The bill also gives prosecutors and law enforcement officers electronic access to records expunged.

“First and foremost, we’re talking about low-level non-violent offenses,” said Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, an advocate of the changes. “It’s important that people understand the bill is a fairly narrow opportunity for individuals who paid their debts to society and have proven they can stay out of trouble with the law.”

That would mean when that person applied for jobs or educational opportunities, there could be some circumstances in which a previous criminal record would not be accessible.

“It is in all our best interests to allow them to move forward and try to lead a productive life,” Freeman said.

Cooper also took the opportunity on Friday to issue a proclamation recognizing a provision in the state budget that raises the age for which North Carolina teens are considered adults in the court system.

The reform, known as “Raise the Age,” means that after December 2019, teens ages 16 and 17 no longer will be automatically charged as adults if they are accused of misdemeanors not related to traffic offenses and low-level felonies such as larcenies, break-ins and other non-violent crimes.

“We need a system that helps a young person who wants to turn their life around and to make sure they have the resources to do this,” Cooper said.

Reform advocates have said that North Carolina 16- and 17-year-olds accused of crimes were put at a disadvantage to peers in other states whose encounters with the criminal justice system were shielded from the public.

Juvenile justice advocates have tried for years to get North Carolina to raise the age at which teens can be prosecuted as adults, arguing that the teenage brain is not fully developed. Through the juvenile justice system, judges can establish legal tethers that link the young offenders to a team of psychologists, substance abuse counselors, family members, guardians and others invested in helping them turn their lives around.

That doesn’t mean the most violent teens cannot be moved into the adult system. As it is now, suspects as young as 13 charged with particularly violent crimes still can be tried as adults. There were no calls to change that.

“We don’t want young people to be held back for life because of one bad decision,” Cooper said before signing the proclamation. “We want them and their families to work with our juvenile justice system so we can get them on the right path.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1