Until 1941, people convicted of first-degree burglary and arson in North Carolina faced a mandatory death sentence. Until December—when a law passed two years ago kicks in—the state will be the only one to automatically prosecute sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds as adults, thanks to a policy that’s been on the books for a century. And North Carolina is still ten times more likely to lock up a person of color than a white person, according to the Carolina Justice Policy Center

The Tar Heel state has seldom been on the cutting edge of criminal justice reform. But a flurry of proposals this legislative session suggests that could change—or, at least, that there’s a new sense of urgency in how lawmakers are approaching incarceration. 

This year, about two dozen bills have been filed to change the way North Carolina’s justice system treats people, from pretrial release to sentencing to reentry into society. Not all will become law, but many have bipartisan support.

“From my perspective, and I’ve shared this with many individuals, this is the most focused [session] on meaningful criminal justice reform that I’ve ever seen,” says Daniel Bowes, an attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center who has lobbied on reentry issues for seven years.

Tarrah Callahan, executive director at Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform, who has been working with Republican legislators on criminal justice bills, agrees. “It is a really exciting time that we’re seeing so much energy and willingness to consider different alternatives,” she says.

Republicans have controlled the General Assembly since 2011, and their support is necessary for anything to pass. And while the GOP has traditionally staked out tough-on-crime positions, Republicans’ willingness to advance reforms has grown along with awareness about the consequences of incarceration. 

“This is not just an interest of a few powerful legislators,” Bowes says. “Generally, both caucuses get this issue and feel some urgency, and that translates into leadership support. What you’re seeing this year is that the leadership is supporting this.”

This momentum has been building since the 2011 Justice Reinvestment Act, which rerouted corrections spending to community programs aimed at reducing recidivism, Bowes says. Examining the costs of the criminal justice system grew into a larger look at its collateral consequences. Adding to the momentum are North Carolina’s Raise the Age Act, a bipartisan law passed in 2017 that, come December, will keep most sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who are charged with crimes in the juvenile system; and the federal First Step Act, passed with President Trump’s signature, which reduces some federal sentences. Last month, four Republican state senators filed the North Carolina First Step Act, which is patterned after the federal legislation.

These issues resonate with conservatives, Callahan says, because they are evidence-based. Research shows that people are more successful when post-incarceration barriers are reduced.

“When we started talking about conservative criminal justice reform, oftentimes we would say, ‘These issues are consistent with conservative principles. We are supporting them because we are conservative, not in spite of it,’” Callahan says. “It’s really become something that you don’t necessarily have to add that qualifier anymore.” 

Bills filed this session to eliminate sentences of life in prison without parole for juveniles and to end the death penalty for people with mental illnesses have bipartisan sponsors. (Efforts to repeal the death penalty and limit the use of solitary confinement for inmates with mental illnesses, meanwhile, only have Democrats on board so far.) House Bill 460—whose primary sponsors are Republicans, though fourteen Democrats have signed on—would prohibit state agencies from asking job applicants about their criminal history prior to a conditional offer and “encourage” private employers to do the same. 

A bill to study recidivism and tools to reduce it also has bipartisan support, as does House Bill 930, which—expanding on a 2016 law—would notify district attorneys if people serving an active sentence of at least six months have pending misdemeanors or infractions and create a process for dismissing those cases prior to their release. 

Several more bipartisan bills seek to broaden expunction eligibility, allowing teens to expunge convictions for which they would no longer be tried in adult court once Raise the Age takes effect and making it easier for people to expunge charges that were dismissed or resulted in a not-guilty finding. One proposal would automatically expunge dismissed charges rather than requiring a person to petition for the expunction.

There appears to be more bipartisan support for bills dealing with sentencing, expunctions, and reentry than those focused on the front end of the criminal justice systems, perhaps because of the bail industry’s lobbying power.

Democrats have proposed bills to study the cash bail system and fund pilot programs to reduce the use of secured bonds. A proposal to require some defendants to be released from jail pretrial with only a written promise to appear in court has two Republican sponsors. Callahan has worked with Republican legislators on House Bill 885, which would track jail data across the state.

“The most work has been done on reentry because, honestly, it’s just easier,” Bowes says. “Somebody has already been convicted and held accountable. At that point, it’s sort of an easy question: Do you think somebody should be punished for the rest of their lives, isolated from opportunities, and really pushed into a revolving-door criminal justice system, or do you think they should be given a fair chance?”

Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at swillets@indyweek.com, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @sarah_willets.