A protester kneels in the street before continuing with those marching through uptown after George Floyd's killing. Floyd's death sparked widespread outcry and, in North Carolina, a racial equity task force that assembled a lengthy list of recommendations for criminal justice reform. (Photo for Cardinal & Pine by Grant Baldwin). 'Black Lives Matter' in Charlotte
A protester kneels in the street before continuing with those marching through uptown after George Floyd's killing. Floyd's death sparked widespread outcry and, in North Carolina, a racial equity task force that assembled a lengthy list of recommendations for criminal justice reform. (Photo for Cardinal & Pine by Grant Baldwin).

Cooper’s racial justice task force, created after George Floyd’s killing, wants more training, fairer drug laws, and police accountability.

Racial inequity in the criminal justice system is, of course, about more than marijuana.

But the racially-biased policing of the drug, which is being rapidly decriminalized in the US if not in NC (indeed, 2020 was a banner year for weed in other states), is as emblematic a marker of the case for criminal justice reform as any.

hite and Black people use marijuana at similar rates. But non-white North Carolinians, who account for less than 30% of the state’s population, made up about 61% of those charged and convicted for marijuana offenses in 2019, NC Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls and Attorney General Josh Stein pointed out Monday in a virtual meeting with reporters. 

The panel called on North Carolina to decriminalize the drug, included in the 125 recommendations prepared by NC’s seminal Racial Justice Task Force — commissioned by Gov. Roy Cooper after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. The report called for a task force to study legalization. It also urged law enforcement to de-emphasize marijuana enforcement, and asked the state legislature to “decriminalize” possession of up to 1.5 ounces, making it a ticketed civil offense rather than a criminal charge. 

Marijuana might be the headliner, but the task force’s report also covers law enforcement training, use of force policies, a revamp of how school resource officers are deployed, expanded data collection, law enforcement training and more.

“The inequities that African Americans experience, whether it’s in the economy, the schools or the criminal justice system, are pervasive,” said Stein. “They are damaging and they are wrong.”

Stein called the report “just the start of a public conversation” Monday. Cooper, the state’s former attorney general before Stein, launched the panel in June after weeks of unrest across the country following Floyd’s death, just the latest in a string of recorded violent encounters between Black Americans and police. 

The 24-member task force included judges, policymakers, local law enforcement, civil rights advocates, public defenders, lawmakers and local government leaders. They held 61 meetings this year, including listening sessions and public hearings. 

Earls called the final 166-page report “the best of our thinking to date.”

Anita Earls, John Lewis
Anita Earls, a NC Supreme Court justice and longtime civil rights lawyer, with the late John Lewis. Earls is co-chair of a racial equity task force that released a number of recommendations for criminal justice reform Monday. (Image via Facebook)

What’s in the report? 

In addition to the report’s marijuana proposals, the task force called for a ban on the use of neckholds, which have been associated with multiple deaths in police custody. 

It also proposed: 

  • Improved crisis training for law enforcement
  • More funding for grassroots and local intervention programs
  • Re-emphasizing community policing to promote trust in local law enforcement
  • Improved data collection and tracking to identifyracial disparities, and follow police who’ve bounced around to multiple agencies because of past malfeasance
  • Creation of local civilian oversight boards to review instances of use of force
  • Mandatory body cams for all law enforcement
  • Raising the minimum age for juvenile court jurisdiction from 6 to 12. Stein pointed out NC’s minimum age is the youngest in the country.
  • Reforming harsh juvenile sentencing
  • Improve transparency on jury selection
  • Revising a cash bail system that often imprisons low-income defendants for long periods because they can’t afford to pay their bail
  • Assessing a person’s ability to pay court fines and fees

Earls said the state will need strong datakeeping to determine if they are effective at reducing racial disparities. 

“We have to be looking at the outcome measures and the lived experiences of the people of North Carolina to measure success,” said Earls. 

What about the legislature? 

Some of the policy changes in the report can changed at the executive levelby Cooper. But many will require changes to the law, which must come through the NC General Assembly.

Approval at the Republican-controlled legislature could be more difficult in many instances. Cooper’s office and GOP lawmakers have often been at odds in the years since Cooper was elected in 2016.

Still, Stein — a Democratic former state lawmaker — pointed out Democrats and Republicans successfully collaborated in recent years on major criminal justice reforms like 2017’s “Raise the Age” bill, which increased the age at which youth can be automatically charged like adults from 16 to 18. They also worked together on the Second Chance Act, which this year expanded who is eligible to have past offenses expunged from their record.

“The issue of criminal justice reform is one of the few issues in our deeply divided country and state that Democrats and Republicans have worked together constructively,” said Stein. “We are hopeful that we will find issues where we can work together to make NC’s criminal justice system better and fairer.”

The task force, however, did not include any Republican lawmakers, who hold the majority in both the state House and Senate. State Rep. Marcia Morey, a Democrat from Durham and retired district court judge, said she was “optimistic” about some of the recommendations’ chances. “They are not political recommendations at all,” said Morey. “They are backed by data.”

Henderson Hill, a civil rights attorney who leads the ACLU’s Sentencing Project, said reform will take years. Entrenched prejudice in criminal justice was created by decades-old Jim Crow laws and “War on Drugs” policies that punished Black defendants more harshly than their white counterparts by imposing harsher penalties on drugs more often used by Black Americans. 

“It took us 400 years to get to a legal system that was raised on racism and white supremacy,” said Hill. “You’re not going to undo that in five months or five years. It’s a process. … But before you can fix or correct, you have to speak truth.”

The task force was commissioned to complete its work by 2022. Members said they would advocate to push through each of the recommendations at the state and local levels.