Overcriminalization is a key criminal justice reform issue for many conservative organizations. At both the federal and state level, conservative leaders recognize that expansive and overly broad criminal codes create tremendous inefficiencies, opportunities for injustice, and may undermine the authority of the criminal law.
In North Carolina, a project begun by the UNC School of Government seeks to recodify our state’s criminal codes. North Carolina’s criminal code is currently larger than that of South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia or Georgia, expanding to over 765 sections. Rather than having all criminal offenses codified in one section of North Carolina law, they appear throughout more than 142 different chapters of state law. This scattered and unorganized approach makes it difficult for law enforcement officers, lawyers, and judges to know and understand the criminal law. And it undermines fair notice to citizens.
How did we get here?
Over the years, a flurry of new criminal offenses have been added to North Carolina’s criminal code, with little attention to producing a comprehensive, consistent code. Each year, North Carolina lawmakers add an average of 34 crimes to our books. While intentions were good in adding new crimes to the books, the resulting bulky, redundant and complex criminal code creates problems and unnecessary expense for our state.
Trial judges address ambiguities on an ad hoc basis in the cases that come before them. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors are faced with hugely confusing decisions when determining how to proceed with charging decisions. And the average North Carolinian is in danger of breaking laws he or she may not even know existed!
By creating a comprehensive and orderly criminal code, North Carolina could save money and court resources, while also promoting fairness and equal application of the law. This process would best be done by a legislative commission, and has already been contemplated by the General Assembly in the 2017 session.
A “Recodification Study Commission,” supported by appropriate expert staff, could include a wide range of justice system stakeholders and could aim to complete its work in two years. The Commission would review North Carolina’s current unwieldy code, and aim to create recommendations to remove unnecessary and redundant language throughout the various chapters. While doing so, the Commission would ensure that the General Assembly’s intent is preserved in recommended changes.
This effort enjoys widespread support from individuals and organizations across the political spectrum. Particularly of note, both the John Locke Foundation and Manhattan Institute have been on the front line of advocacy efforts supporting these important changes to North Carolina’s criminal code.