Debate highlights flaws in N.C. criminal code
It came across as an offhand comment, not designed to sway colleagues to vote one way or another.
But Rep. Larry Yarborough, R-Person, uttered one sentence last week on the floor of the state House of Representatives that highlighted a major issue facing North Carolina’s criminal justice system.
“We probably need to rewrite this whole criminal code with someone that knows what they’re doing,” Yarborough quipped, more than one hour into debate about House Bill 280, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act.
Informally known as the “Raise the Age” bill, H.B. 280 would transfer jurisdiction of most 16- and 17-year-old criminal offenders from adult court to the juvenile justice system. Less than 10 minutes after Yarborough’s remark, the House endorsed the idea, 104-8.
But while Raise the Age attracted widespread support, the House debate exposed confusion surrounding the level of punishment associated with various crimes in North Carolina. The confusion fueled much of the debate.
Raise the Age supporters want the juvenile justice system to handle all teens charged with misdemeanors, along with those charged with nonviolent felonies. Violent felony offenders would continue to head to adult courts.
The dividing line falls between the letters E and F on a graded scale of felonies spelled out in North Carolina’s system of structured sentencing. The letter A represents the worst felony offenses, while the letter I represents the least offensive. In theory.
That theory doesn’t hold up to real-world scrutiny. Yarborough highlighted the problem. “Having recently learned how our criminal code is written, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that involuntary manslaughter is the same as patronizing a prostitute, or that assault by strangulation and hit and run [are] about the same level as possession of stolen goods, and neither of these [is] as bad as identity theft.”
The apparent discrepancy didn’t stop Yarborough from supporting H.B. 280. It did block Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, from casting a “yes” vote. “There’s a huge difference between jaywalking and assaulting a government official with a deadly weapon — or assaulting anybody with a deadly weapon,” Collins said during the same debate.
“Let’s say I’m a couple of weeks before my 17th birthday, and I go out and stab a government official.” Collins then spelled out a hypothetical scenario in which the stabber is close to age 18 before his case is resolved. “They can’t impose any kind of term on me that goes past my 19th birthday,” he said.
“I’m more concerned about that guy who’s going out and committing a serious assault, and now the juvenile justice system has basically a year to rehabilitate them and get them not to do that kind of serious crime any more. To me, that’s a serious, serious limit to this bill.”
Apparent inconsistencies within the state’s criminal code helped prevent Collins and a handful of state representatives from supporting H.B. 280. Perhaps the same inconsistencies can help build support among a larger group of lawmakers for a plan to rewrite the code.
That would represent good news to Jon Guze, the John Locke Foundation’s director of legal studies. Earlier this spring, Guze recommended that lawmakers “review, revise, and recodify the entire body of North Carolina law.”
It’s also a top priority for Jessica Smith, Kenan distinguished professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “In North Carolina, we lack a streamlined, comprehensive, orderly, and principled criminal code,” Smith said during a March 13 forum co-sponsored by JLF and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
“That causes a number of problems,” Smith explained. “One is it causes tremendous inefficiency in the system, which drives up costs for everybody in the system. It also leads to opportunities for unfairness and, in the end, I think it actually undermines the criminal law.”
Chapter 14 of North Carolina’s General Statutes purports to spell out the criminal code. While it contains most of the state’s crimes, felony offenses appear in 53 separate chapters of the General Statutes, Smith said.
“Misdemeanors can be found in 143 separate chapters of the General Statutes,” she added. “And that’s not all. Under North Carolina law, we delegate the authority to create criminal law to administrative boards and bodies. So, for example, the Board of Dental Examiners is allowed to create crimes by regulation.”
That’s just one example. Local governments — even metropolitan sewerage districts — also can create crimes through ordinances, Smith said. “One tiny town in North Carolina with a population of just over 5,000 has a local ordinance that says it is unlawful to allow chickens to be at large in the town.” Violate the ordinance, and you’ve committed a Class 3 misdemeanor under state law.
Even the part of the code that is codified remains incomplete, Smith said. “We haven’t dealt with a host of principles and concepts that are central to criminal law.”
It’s unlikely that lawmakers will deal with these issues before deciding what to do about the Raise the Age bill. But one hopes that the General Assembly will resolve to put in place a “streamlined, comprehensive, orderly, and principled” criminal code.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.