Originally in The News & Observer
December 14, 2020

Gov. Roy Cooper’s task force on racial equity released dozens of recommendations Monday in a report that called for widespread changes to address racial bias within the state’s policing and criminal justice systems.

“North Carolina can re-imagine public safety to provide accountability for victims and safety for communities without the grotesque racial disparities that manifest in so many ways in our criminal justice system,” states a letter from Attorney General Josh Stein and Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls, co-chairs of the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. Both are Democrats.

The 125 recommendations address policies and laws that disproportionately affect people of color, from traffic stops to protest responses, arrests and reentry into the community after prison time.

Other recommendations in Monday’s report include decriminalizing marijuana, revising the role of school resource officers and increasing oversight and accountability for law enforcement.

“This is just the start of a public conversation,” Stein said. “We are committed to working alongside leaders across the state to turn these ideas into action.”

During a news conference Monday, Stein said the report is suggesting a rethinking of law enforcement, to focus more on community policing in which police should see themselves more as guardians, not warriors.

The report also makes recommendations to address gaps in community services that result in officers and deputies dealing with issues that Stein said should be handled by health care providers and social workers.

“We put too much on the shoulder of law enforcement,” he said.

Criminal justice reform has bipartisan support, Stein said, citing several reforms the Republican-led state legislature passed earlier this year. He said he expects that momentum to continue.

“There have been important reforms implemented by the Republican General Assembly, and I compliment them for their leadership on this issue,” Stein said.

John Rubin, a criminal law expert at the UNC School of Government who will be helping train officials on some of the recommendations if they become reality, said North Carolina has worked on specific criminal justice reforms before. But this is the most expansive effort in recent memory.

”In the 30 years I’ve been here I haven’t seen anything comparable,” Rubin said.

Police use of force was a main focus of the task force, which Cooper created in response to widespread protests this summer over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people killed by police.

Cooper charged 24 people from a range of backgrounds to identify and find solutions to racial bias within the state’s policing and criminal justice systems. The task force’s membership included a mayor, district attorney, judge and public defender, along with law enforcement officers, state leaders and activists.

Not everything the task force recommended won unanimous support, officials have said. The group’s law enforcement members thought some parts went too far, and the more activist members thought some parts didn’t go far enough. But in the end all 24 members voted to approve the report and send it to Cooper, to get the ball rolling.

Task force members will continue to meet through 2022 and work to implement the recommendations.

Some of the suggestions in the report published Monday will require the state legislature to act, while other pieces can be accomplished by local or state agencies changing their own rules and policies.

POLICE TACTICS AND REFORM

Police reform takes up much of the report’s focus. And the recommended changes go far beyond minor tweaks to tactics or procedures. The N.C. Sheriffs’ Association has already come out in opposition to some parts of the report, although it does support some of the changes, The Herald-Sun previously reported.

A major theme is changing the tactics of policing, on everything from traffic stops to protest responses and use-of-force rules.

“Black drivers are twice as likely to be pulled over as white drivers,” the report states, citing statewide law enforcement data. “Once pulled over, Black drivers are twice as likely to be searched, yet less than 10% of these searches lead to arrest. These disparities contribute to distrust of law enforcement in communities of color.”

Some of the policy changes the report recommends include:

▪ Focus less on traffic stops for minor infractions and more on safety issues, like speeding and DWIs.

▪ Require police to get written, informed consent from drivers to search their cars.

▪ Cut down on the use of tear gas, pepper spray and weapons against peaceful protesters. 

▪ Create a “duty to intervene” that requires law enforcement to stop fellow officers from abusing people, and to report any abuses they witness, particularly related to excessive use of force.

POLICE OVERSIGHT

The report also suggests tracking officers who are frequently accused of using excessive force, and keeping officers fired for excessive force from simply being rehired by a different agency.

Those are just a few of the report’s suggestions for oversight, accountability and a “culture change” in law enforcement, including:

▪ Give more power to police review boards, which the report says currently “have no meaningful way to provide oversight of civilian complaints.”

▪ Make body cams and dash cams mandatory, and increase transparency and access to the footage.

▪ Recruit and promote more diverse officers, pay officers more, and require a psychological exam as part of the law enforcement hiring process.

▪ Require more training on deescalation tactics for protests, and on “distinguishing civil disobedience from riots and violence.”

CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

Disparate outcomes in the criminal justice system are also a major focus of the report. It recommends changes to juvenile justice and issues like bail and sentencing. 

It also recommended decriminalizing some offenses, such as marijuana possession, which it said don’t affect public safety but have disparate outcomes.

To reduce the school-to-prison pipeline the report recommends rethinking the juvenile justice system in which youth of color make up 46% of the student population but about 71% of the criminal complaints received from last year.

The recommended changes include:

▪ Raise the age at which a child can be prosecuted from 6 to 12. North Carolina has the youngest age for juvenile justice jurisdiction in the country.

▪ Require a school administrator or social worker to sign criminal juvenile petitions initiated by a school resource officer.

▪ End life without parole sentences for juveniles, and review sentences of juvenile offenders in the system.

SHRINK THE CRIMINAL CODE

The report recommends legislation to decriminalize the possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana. Research indicates that white and Black people use marijuana at similar rates, but Black people are disproportionately arrested and convicted for it.

“It impacts a lot of people,” Earls said Monday, adding that last year there were 10,000 North Carolinians convicted of having small amounts of marijuana, most of them minorities.

The legislation would turn possession into a civil offense and would expunge past convictions. 

It also recommends that state and local law enforcement and prosecutors make marijuana the lowest drug enforcement priority.

The report also recommends:

▪ Convene a task force to study marijuana legalization.

▪ Reclassify certain criminal misdemeanors that don’t impact public safety, such as sleeping in a public place, consuming beer in a public place and failure to return rental property, as a civil infraction.

▪ End municipal or county ordinances that criminalize poverty or behavior in public places, including disturbing the peace, begging and public urination.

▪ End the practice of North Carolinians being able to initiate criminal charges against someone by reporting it to a magistrate.

BAIL AND PRISONS

The recommendations also seek to reduce time behind bars, before and after trial.

Even short stays in jail before a trial can disrupt people’s lives, the report states. And those negative effects disproportionately affect people of color, it states.

“Empirical research find that judges overpredict the risk of Black defendants committing crimes on pretrial release and underpredict the risk of white defendants,” the report states.

The report made recommendations for making sure people are jailed because they’re a safety threat, and not simply for being poor, including:

▪ Require judges to assess defendants’ ability to pay before assigning court and other fines.

▪ Reduce the amount of fines and fees, and the state’s reliance on that money.

▪ Increase racial equity training for court personnel, and data collection on prosecutors’ charging decisions and plea offers.

The report also recommended steps for addressing extreme racial disparities in courts after conviction. Those include:

▪ Increase the flexibility of prisoner release dates.

▪ Review convictions, excluding murder and rape, after 20 years.

The recommendations also call for changing the use of solitary confinement and increasing funding for mental health services, restorative justice and rehabilitation programming in prisons.