The General Assembly is shuffling and slogging its way toward a simpler criminal code.
Senate Bill 584, Criminal Law Reform, is another attempt to clean up North Carolina’s mishmash of criminal laws. Picking through the disarray is proving a slow process for lawmakers.
The state is overdue for a criminal code overhaul, experts say, given the hundreds of crimes strewn across more than 140 chapters of the N.C. General Statutes. Chapter 14, which deals specifically with criminal law, holds more than 840 sections. It’s overwhelming — especially when residents can’t keep up with crimes created by counties, cities, towns, and even city sewer districts.
Some locales have laws against chickens running free. Others criminalize failure to shovel snow from sidewalks outside shops, or to put screens in home windows.
In 2018, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 379, a law requiring agencies, local governments, and the state court system to take inventory of their criminal laws, and to report back to the N.C. General Assembly. Now, S.B. 584 is making its way through House committees. The bill, which passed the Senate in May, originally would’ve stopped town ordinances from automatically becoming crimes, forced state agencies to submit their rules for legislative review, and created a special defense for any new crimes that weren’t properly codified in the General Statutes.
On July 10, the House Judiciary Committee stripped S.B. 584 bare, rewriting it to simply extend the deadline for local governments to submit their reports to legislature.
As rewritten, the bill is supported by the N.C. League of Municipalities and the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance, who is running the bill in the House.
Local governments have until Nov. 1 to turn in their reports. Municipalities that miss the deadline will be stripped of their right to make new criminal laws.
The General Assembly is sending a strong message to counties, towns, and cities, said Mike Schietzelt, criminal justice fellow for the John Locke Foundation.
“Either the local governments submit the reports, or the General Assembly freezes their power to create new crimes long enough to get the information it needs to move forward with other criminal reforms,” Schietzelt said.
S.B. 584 now heads to the House Rules Committee.