NC Chamber polling says voters want criminal justice reforms

Published July 4, 2024

By Tarrah Callahan

Advocating for evidence-based reforms in the criminal justice system is sometimes challenging. Describing data-driven solutions in the face of media coverage of serious and violent crime is well summed up by the statement, “Narrative eats data for lunch.” What we now know is that there is a pathway to being both tough on crime and making common sense criminal-justice reforms. This can be done by strengthening pathways to get people back to work, so they become (or remain) contributors to their communities and our state. Plainly, reducing recidivism while strengthening our economy isn’t “soft on crime.”

Our criminal-justice system is driven by low-level, nonviolent felonies that end up siphoning people into the system for charges like administrative traffic offenses. And for some, it is quite difficult to ever get out of the system. If you’ve ever attended traffic court, two questions probably come to mind. First, how are we in an efficient and sustainable system, when droves of ticketed drivers end up sitting in traffic court for hours waiting for their cases to be called? Second, if someone can’t afford to pay court costs for an offense, such as expired registration, how will taking their license away ensure they can continue working to pay the court, or even provide for themselves?

Our systems have been pushed to the breaking point, leaving courts, law enforcement, and corrections officers strapped to respond. Finding true public-safety solutions requires making some easy fixes, and consulting the decades of data we have available as to what is truly effective in reducing crime.

Despite the political rhetoric, criminal-justice reform has been an area that has continuously enjoyed bipartisanship. That is once again confirmed by recently released polling from the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. The topics ranged from the general direction of North Carolina, broad criminal-justice reform topics, and a few specific policies that have been circulating through the legislature over the last few years.

Turns out, voters are concerned about the economy and open to solutions that help get North Carolinians back to work. They recognize that a small bad decision can saddle someone with a criminal record — sending a family or individual into a downward spiral of economic uncertainty and potentially, more bad decisions. We have one million adults in North Carolina who have a criminal record despite having been found not guilty or having had their charges dismissed.

As our state approaches another competitive and divisive election season, voters here continue to find common ground on criminal-justice reform. Respondents broadly support polices that clear a person’s criminal record (73%). Further, 71% of voters agree that automated record clearance for individuals whose cases were dismissed or found not guilty will remove employment barriers and save tax dollars.

A majority of voters (51%) support ending the practice of revoking driver licenses over unpaid fines and fees — perhaps that majority recognizes, unprompted, that taking away someone’s driver’s license makes it a whole lot harder to keep a job.

Unsurprisingly, in a day when folks are used to being able to do almost anything on their phones, North Carolina residents are also big fans of modernizing our courts. On the topic of eCourts, 66% of voters support streamlining our court administrations, increase access and accountability of records, and moving our system into the 21st Century.

For legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle, this polling should offer comfort that common-sense reforms are supported by a majority of North Carolinian voters. Removing barriers for individuals to get back to work, to start and/or provide for their families, and to continue being contributors to their local communities isn’t controversial at all — it just makes sense.