Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law last week a bill that will expand opportunities for people to have felonies expunged from their records.
Under Senate Bill 301, up to three nonviolent felonies will be eligible for expunction if they occurred within 24 months of each other and if 20 years have passed since either the date of conviction or the completion of the sentence.
Severe felonies, such as murder, assault, sexual offenses and hate crimes, do not qualify for expunction.
Frank Baumgartner, a professor of political science at UNC who analyzed felony conviction data with the nonpartisan advocacy group Forward Justice, discovered that 64 percent of all people with convictions only had one felony, and less than 10 percent of them were charged with felonies in the highest categories (classes A-D).
“When people say felony, we think that it's a violent crime, but actually about 80 percent of felonies relate to drug possession,” he said. “It's a lot of very low level stuff.”
The consequences of having a felony are serious, he added. Direct effects are obvious: prison, fines and loss of access to some services. Beyond this, employers, apartments and schools running background checks can make it difficult for those convicted of a felony to find employment or housing.
“The big picture thing is the collateral damage that's caused by the economic and lifestyle consequences of having a felony conviction,” Baumgartner said. “They can keep you in poverty. And if you’re in poverty, you’re going to end up having to make bad choices.”
Rep. Graig R. Meyer, D-Caswell, Orange, has experience in social work and said felonies make it difficult for people to rejoin society.
“I saw the way that even a short incarceration damaged families and made it difficult for parents to be able to take care of their kids financially once they got out,” Meyer said.
While the bill alone is significant because the effects it will have on many lives, its bipartisan nature is also notable. The bill had 13 sponsors, made up of both Republicans and Democrats, and passed through both legislative chambers unanimously.
Christopher Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University with a focus on Southern politics, said this is the most striking aspect of the bill.
“That shouldn’t be noteworthy, but it is,” Cooper said.
Legislation in this area has tended to be bipartisan in recent years.
Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, D-Mecklenburg, said he had worked with Sen. Danny Britt Jr., R-Columbus, Robeson, on similar initiatives in the past, such as 2020's "Second Chance Act," which also made revisions to the state's expunction laws. Mohammed, a sponsor of both bills alongside Britt, said he believes legislators can find common ground when discussing criminal justice.
“Implementing justice reforms is one area of the law that I think the American people and North Carolinians really want Democrats and Republicans to work together,” Mohammed said. “These solutions aren’t about big government or small government — they’re about a compassionate, responsive government.”
Some activists, however, argued the bill did not go far enough in ensuring a more equitable criminal justice system.
Among them is Daniel Bowes, the director of policy and advocacy with the ACLU of North Carolina, whose objections include the 20-year gap before a felony is eligible to be expunged and the fact that, for three felonies to be expunged, they had to have occurred within the same 24 months.
“It’s a bill that provides limited additional relief,” Bowes said. “For the individuals who it applies to, it's a great thing to be able to expunge their record, but it doesn’t go nearly as far as advocates wanted it to.”
Sen. Natalie Murdock, D-Durham, who is also one of the bill's sponsors, said she saw similar issues.
“I definitely think when it comes to expungements in general, we can keep doing more,” Murdock said. “There’s no reason to treat people like second-class citizens for the rest of their lives once they’ve already spent time in prison.”