One More Opportunity for N.C. to Lead the Way in Criminal Justice | Beaufort County Now | North Carolina has made many strides in criminal justice reform over the past decade. | john locke foundation, criminal justice, reform, february 27, 2020

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One More Opportunity for N.C. to Lead the Way in Criminal Justice

Publisher's note: The author of this post is Brenee Goforth for the John Locke Foundation.

    North Carolina has made many strides in criminal justice reform over the past decade. From justice reinvestment legislation to juvenile justice reform to making it easier for former offenders to get occupational licenses, North Carolina has been quietly leading the nation in criminal justice reform. The next step for North Carolina, according to a recent research brief by JLF's Jon Guze, should be to recodify our criminal code.

    Guze explains the problem:

  • Almost 2,500 separate crimes are defined in the North Carolina General Statutes: 874 where one would expect to find them in Chapter 14 under the title "Criminal Law," and another 1,600 sprinkled here and there throughout 141 different chapters of the statute book.
  • Making matters worse, various "catch-all" statutes make it a crime to violate the rules and regulations promulgated by administrative agencies, professional licensing boards, county and municipal governments, and metropolitan sewerage districts. Those criminalized rules and regulations do not appear in the statute book at all. Instead, a citizen who wants to learn about them must comb through thousands of pages of the administrative code and other compilations and records.

    This disorganized system of criminal codification has many downfalls. Guze writes:

  • Generally referred to as "overcriminalization," this state of affairs:
    • Creates uncertainty and wastes scarce law-enforcement resources;
    • Causes mistakes and encourages litigation;
    • Places innocent people at risk and discourages entrepreneurship;
    • Encourages abuses like selective enforcement and over-charging;
    • Undermines public confidence in, and respect for, the rule of law;
    • Impedes piecemeal improvements like sentencing reform and reforms directed at police and prosecutorial misconduct.

    Guze explains the goals of criminal recodification reform:

  • Eliminate all crimes that are obsolete, unnecessary, redundant, or unconstitutional;
    • Resolve all inconsistencies;
    • Downgrade minor regulatory offenses from crimes to infractions;
    • Ensure that the definition of each crime is clear and complete and states explicitly what level of criminal knowledge or intent is required for conviction; and
    • Consolidate the revised body of criminal law into a single, coherent, easily understood chapter of the General Statutes.

    Guze spells out his suggestions for reform:

  • Create a formal oversight body to review proposed crimes and periodically audit existing crimes;
  • Provide a default "criminal intent" standard for all crimes created after recodification, and specify that strict liability crimes can only be created by explicit statutory enactment;
  • Make "mistake of law" a defense for any crime created after recodification that is not clearly defined in the "criminal law" chapter of the General Statutes; and
  • Rescind or restrict the power of agencies, boards, and local governments to create crimes, and specify that to be enforceable, any regulation that carries a criminal penalty must be explicitly approved by the General Assembly.
  • Despite all of our strides in criminal justice reform, North Carolina still has room for significant improvement.

    Read the full brief HERE. Learn more about recodifying North Carolina's criminal code HERE.


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