Paused for 2 years, will wiping clean some criminal records resume in North Carolina?

In 2021 North Carolina legislators implemented a law intended to automatically erase arrest records in criminal cases where people were found not guilty or the charges were dismissed.

But after discovering unintended consequences in its rollout, lawmakers twice hit pause on the promised slate cleaning. Now conservative groups and others want it up and running again, arguing it will help people tarred by arrest records to better find work and places to live.

In March 2023, the state Senate unanimously passed fixes in a new bill based on recommendations by a group of 16 criminal justice leaders, including representatives from the state Conference of District Attorneys, the Second Chance Alliance and the State Bureau of Investigation.

But the bill stalled. Recently it was added to a state House committee calendar and is expected to be heard there on Wednesday.

Why were expunctions put on hold?

Cases disappeared overnight

When the law went into effect, court records started disappearing so fast it caused layers of problems, according to interviews with criminal justice officials.

“Numerous issues immediately surfaced that did not promote community safety or assist the individual who should have benefited from the expungement,” wrote Kimberly Spahos, executive director for the NC Conference of District Attorneys.

People lingered in jail after the system destroyed paperwork that sheriffs needed to release people after their charges were dismissed, according to North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association leader Eddie Caldwell.

“There were people who were still in jail whose cases had been disposed of, but nobody had told the jail,” Caldwell said.

Public defenders couldn’t calculate their hours for payment, said District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. And acquitted defendants couldn’t prove dismissed charges to immigration officials, potential employers or housing managers, Spahos wrote.

Legislators paused the process twice, with current legislation that is set to expire on July 1.

Proposed new law

If the new legislation moves forward the automatic expunctions will resume on Dec. 1 but with recommended changes. The legislation shifts the process from destroying records to sealing them, granting access to a select few.

If this or other legislation doesn’t move forward by July 1, the old system will resume destroying the records.

The North Carolina Administrative Office of Courts is opposed to another pause and requires “operational certainly on the processing of automatic expunctions,” spokesperson Graham Wilson wrote in an email.

As it stands, there is already a backlog of about one million cases, he wrote.

The Office of the Courts recommends “action as soon as possible because high-volume court processes benefit from advanced preparations for technology and administrative requirements,” Wilson wrote.

History of NC Second Chance Act

In 2020, a law known as “Second Chance Act” passed amid a bipartisan effort in North Carolina responding to a call for criminal justice reform across the United States after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officers.

The change included broadening and expediting chances to erase charges and convictions from people’s records. It called for officials to immediately expunge records related to criminal cases that were dismissed or a person was found not guilty.

Prosecutors had expressed concern about the records being destroyed amid discussion about sealing versus destroying the records, Freeman said, but the law didn’t address their concerns.

“People were excited about the prospect of enacting this as a forward thinking policy for the state, “ Freeman said. “ Unfortunately, [they] were not really thinking through or were not aware of all the collateral issues that might arrive.”

When the change went into effect, North Carolina went from processing merely 16,390 expunctions in the 2020-21 to 421,925, the next year according to the Office of the Courts.

When the expunctions were first introduced, charges were dismissed during the day, through a judge’s ruling or a form signed by a prosecutor, and records got destroyed at night, Freeman said.

But people still needed access to those records for a variety of reasons, Freeman said.

eCourts may help

At this point, the state court system has more capacity to deal with the records needs, officials say.

Previous problems arose from the court system’s longtime records system, which depended on physical files and paper documents for storage, according to an administrative office of courts May 3 memorandum by Deputy Director Joseph Kryzer.

The new eCourts system, a fully digital court records platform being rolled out across the state, has drawn high-profile critics — including the state’s district attorneys.

But eCourts will allow help solve the previous problem with expunctions by allowing court officials to seal records, making them visible to approved officials such as prosecutors, state courts officials say.

Freeman supports legislation that would seal records and not destroy them, she said.

People need charges to be expunged so they move on with their lives, Freeman said, but criminal justice officials need access to the records as they investigate, prosecute and resolve cases.

House Rep. Mujtaba Mohammed, a Charlotte Democrat and attorney, said he hopes the bill to restart expunctions moves forward because unless additional legislation is passed, the original law that caused all the problems would go back into effect on July 1.

The proposed legislation would increase individuals’ chances of getting housing, employment and higher pay, Mohammed and others said.

“I mean, a job is the most effective form of crime prevention,” he said.

Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform, a North Carolina-based effort that started in 2016 by Tarrah Callahan and others interested in establishing a conservative-led criminal justice reform group, is advocating that the legislation to resume expunctions move forward.

The economy and public safety are top of mind for voters, said Callahan, the group’s executive director.

“When people have access to good paying jobs and the ability to support themselves, they’re a heck of a lot less likely to get trapped back into the system,” Callahan said.

Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in the Triangle and across North Carolina for The News & Observer. Her work is produced with financial support from the nonprofit The Just Trust. The N&O maintains full editorial control of its journalism.