Could you imagine leaving a courthouse with absolution from a judge or jury — the charge is dismissed, or you’ve been found not guilty — but the criminal record of the prosecution continues to follow you?

Unfortunately, that is the potential for all North Carolinians, as an estimated one million criminal records are active and tethered to individuals found not guilty of a crime or who saw their charges dismissed. Why does this matter? Because a criminal record follows most people for a lifetime, and this breaches the foundation of our justice system — innocent until proven guilty. 

A criminal record is a red flag on almost any background check as you apply for jobs, attempt to pass a credit check for an apartment lease or a home loan, or apply for an occupational license or college. While that’s understandable for some, and much needed in specific instances for certain employers and communities, it’s an insurmountable barrier that punishes those who were never convicted of a crime. For North Carolinians who have been found not guilty or had charges dismissed, it is a set up to be relitigated every time a background check is run.

North Carolina lawmakers already passed legislation to address this problem as part of the Second Chance Act in 2020, but with any new protocols, there were necessary administrative changes. Today, the automated expungement process is in limbo after a legislative pause  was extended until July 1, 2024.

A promise made must be a promise kept, so the saying goes.

Lawmakers now have an opportunity to keep their promise to North Carolinians and support the sound policy behind S565, a bill that addresses and corrects the administrative issues that arose with the automated expunction process which was already signed into law. This bill will allow law enforcement and prosecutors access to the expunged records, but it would seal the not guilty and dismissed records from public view for things like background checks. This bill also gives lawmakers a chance to reinstate the promise of a second chance.

To be clear, S565 does not wipe a person’s record clean. It simply frees the individuals who have been found not guilty or had their charges dismissed by a North Carolina court to reenter the workforce and society without the stigma and burden of an undeserved criminal record. There is also an exception in the law that ensures no case with a felony charge that was dismissed pursuant to a plea agreement may be expunged.

This legislation is the product of a 16-member task force, which included law enforcement and prosecutors who examined the operational issues identified and related to the automated expunction of dismissed and not guilty criminal charges. Pursuant to their recommendations, eligible individuals will no longer file a petition in court — a costly and time-consuming process which also strains valuable judicial resources. Before the pause, North Carolina courts were processing approximately 3,000 expunctions per day. 

The benefits don’t end there. The positive economic impact that S565 could bring to North Carolina cannot be overlooked.

Notably, North Carolina’s Chamber of Commerce supports the policies of S565. In a recent press release with Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform, NC Chamber president and CEO Gary J. Salamido said, “We are committed to removing barriers to work and S565 creates opportunities for our justice-involved individuals to reengage in the workforce. A job is critical to an individual’s health. Modernizing our criminal justice system and implementing this kind of thoughtful change is a win for North Carolina’s families and businesses.”

Support for S565 goes beyond partisan lines. The backing of organizations like the NC Chamber underscores the broad consensus on the necessity of this legislation.

North Carolina was named America’s Top State for Business, propelled by a robust economy and a skilled workforce. This is a feat we should want to sustain by supporting S565, a conservative approach to fortify North Carolina’s economy. As we move forward, North Carolina should embrace opportunities like S565 to ensure a more prosperous future for all North Carolinians and a justice system that promotes public safety for every hard-earned tax dollar.