Ballard and Russell

Sen. Deanna Ballard and Rep. Ray Russell.

RALEIGH — During the short session of the N.C. General Assembly, which convened on April 28, lawmakers have passed a number of bills in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, criminal justice reform and budgeting.

Second Chance Act

The Second Chance Act, also known as SB 562, makes various revisions to the expunction laws of the state including the expunction of records for offenders between the ages of 16 and 18 years old who committed the offense before Dec. 1, 2019, and completed their sentence, probation or court-ordered community service.

The Second Chance Act is only applicable to offenders who have obtained any misdemeanor or Class I felony.

To be eligible for expunction, the bill states, offenders must also have “no restitution orders or outstanding civil judgements representing amounts ordered for restitution for the offense.”

Offenses are not eligible to be expunged if they are included under Chapter 20 of the General Statutes, which includes driving while impaired, according to the bill.

Offenders who meet all of the requirements laid out in the Second Chance Act will be “restored” to the same status as they were before the offense was recorded.

“Mistakes made as a teenager shouldn’t condemn a person to lifelong consequences,” said Sen. Danny Britt (R-Robeson), a sponsor of the bill. “The goal of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation, which is nearly impossible if an offender can’t get a good job to support a family or qualify for quality housing. The Second Chance Act provides hope for a better life, which benefits the individual, society and the economy.”

Both Rep. Ray Russell (D-Boone) and Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Blowing Rock) voted to approve the bill.

The Second Chance Act passed the House and Senate on June 10 and 16, respectively, and as of June 23, it is waiting on action from Cooper.

First Step Act

HB 511, the First Step Act, is an act to increase judicial discretion in sentencing for drug trafficking offenses, according to the UNC School of Government.

Under the First Step Act, judges can use their own discretion, based on an offender’s previous record, to impose reduced fines and sentences as long as the offender meets these criteria:

  • The defendant has accepted responsibility for their criminal conduct.
  • The defendant has not previously been convicted of a felony.
  • The defendant did not use violence or a credible threat of violence, or possess a dangerous weapon, in the offense for which the defendant is being sentenced.
  • The defendant did not use violence or a credible threat of violence, or possess a dangerous weapon, in any other violation of law.
  • The defendant has admitted that they have a substance abuse disorder involving a controlled substance and has successfully completed a treatment program approved by the court to address the substance abuse disorder.
  • Imposition of the mandatory minimum prison term would result in substantial injustice.
  • Imposition of the mandatory minimum prison sentence is not necessary for the protection of the public.
  • The defendant is being sentenced solely for trafficking, or conspiracy to commit trafficking, as a result of possession of a controlled substance.
  • There is no substantial evidence that the defendant has ever engaged in the transport for purposes of sale, manufacture or delivery of a controlled substance or the intent to transport for purpose of sale, sell, manufacture or deliver a controlled substance.

The defendant, to the best of their knowledge, has provided all reasonable assistance in the identification, arrest or conviction of any accomplices, accessories, co-conspirators or principals.

  • The defendant is being sentenced for trafficking, or conspiracy to commit trafficking, for possession of an amount of a controlled substance that is not of a quantity greater than the lowest category for which a defendant may be convicted for trafficking of that controlled substance.

The act also states that, beginning Dec. 1, 2021, the administrative office of the courts shall publish on its website a report on the number of sentences modified under the First Step Act in the prior calendar year.

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and House.

The First Step Act was passed by the Senate and House on June 16 and 17, respectively, and it is awaiting action from Cooper.

Education & Transportation Bond Act of 2020

The Education and Transportation Bond Act of 2020, also known as HB 1225, is sponsored by several representatives in the House, including Rep. Jeffrey Elmore (R-Wilkes), Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston), Rep. Michael Wray (D-Northhampton) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland).

Moore released a statement on Monday, June 22, detailing the $3.1 billion bipartisan bond to benefit public schools and universities that passed in the state’s House and will now wait for Senate approval.

The bond proposes $1.05 billion for K-12 public schools, $600 million for the UNC System, $300 million for community colleges and $1.15 billion for the state’s Department of Transportation.

Russell voted to approve this bill before it moved to the Senate.

Compensation of certain school employees

SB 818 details changes to teachers’ salaries and salary schedules, including directing the Department of Public Instruction to administer a one-time bonus of $350 by Oct. 31 for any teacher who was employed before Oct. 1.

Bonuses for charter schools, regional schools, innovative schools and laboratory schools will be based on the daily membership of each school.

The bill defines “teacher” to include instructional support personnel and urges Cooper to “allocate funds from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund to provide a one-time bonus of $600 for teachers, instructional support personnel and non-certified personnel.”

On June 17, Moore issued a statement that reads, “Thanks to smart budgeting, North Carolina can weather the historic revenue shortfalls caused by the economic shutdown and still reward educators with salary step increases and bonuses instead of the pay cuts and furloughs of previous crises.”

Local Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Blowing Rock) is a co-sponsor of this bill, which was passed by the Senate and House on June 15 and 17, respectively. Russell voted for the bill in the House.

According to a statement from House Democrat Leader Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Raleigh), “Democrats offered two amendments to provide larger bonuses to teachers and to include all public-school employees in the bonuses, but the House Republican leadership blocked these amendments and so they failed. I strongly supported both amendments. I voted ‘No’ on the bill because the bonuses were too small and are much less than the scheduled pay raises for state employees who work outside of our public schools.”

As of June 23, the bill is waiting on action from Cooper.

UNC Student Lease Hold Harmless

HB 1127 is a bill introduced by Rep. Ray Russell (D-Boone) that establishes the COVID-19 Emergency Grant Program for Postsecondary Students, which is designed to help college students pay their monthly rent.

According to the UNC School of Government, the bill would require institutions to begin accepting applications for financial assistance from students who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic by Sept. 1.

Students would be eligible for assistance if their lease started on or before March 15 and was obtained because the student planned on attending a nearby institution. Grants would be required to be issued to eligible students within two weeks of them submitting an application.

The bill also “requires funds to be paid directly to the lessor ... and requires the lessor accepting funds to hold the lessee harmless ... in the event funds do not fully satisfy the financial obligations of the lease agreement,” stated the UNC School of Government.

The bill would allocate $50 million from the Coronavirus Relief Reserve to the Coronavirus Relief Fund and would appropriate $50 million from the state reserves to the Board of Governors to provide the grants.

HB 1127 has been waiting on committee action since May 15.

Gym reopening bill vetoed

Additionally, on June 19, Cooper vetoed HB 594, which set parameters for the immediate reopening of gyms, health clubs and fitness centers, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Tying the hands of public health officials in times of pandemic is dangerous, especially when case counts and hospitalizations are rising. State and local officials must be able to take swift action during the COVID-19 emergency to prevent a surge of patients from overwhelming hospitals and endangering the lives of North Carolinians. The bill could restrict leaders who need to respond quickly to outbreaks and protect public health and safety,” Cooper said.

HB 594 was passed by both the state’s Senate and House on June 9 and 10, respectively, and upon Cooper’s veto the Senate Republican Press responded with a statement from Sen. Rick Gunn (R-Almanance).

“On the same day attorneys argued in court that Gov. Cooper’s different treatment of bars and restaurants is inexplicable, Gov. Cooper vetoed this economic lifeline for thousands of businesses across North Carolina. Our state is one of only four that has not reopened gyms and fitness centers,” Gunn said. “Why did he walk with protesters without a mask on, but prohibits everyday citizens from using an elliptical machine at a gym? Why is it safe to have a drink outside at a restaurant, but it’s dangerous to have a drink outside at a bar? Gov. Cooper needs to release the science behind these apparent contradictions.”

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