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NC racial justice task force makes dozens of recommendations

December 14, 2020 GMT

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A task force commissioned by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper in the days following George Floyd’s death on Monday formally recommended far-reaching changes to police, criminal justice and court systems, with a goal of eliminating racial inequities.

“This task force took the governor’s charge seriously and worked to develop recommendations that will make North Carolina a safer place for every person no matter who you are,” said Attorney General Josh Stein, who co-led the panel with Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls.

The final report from the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice urges more vigorous formal police standards involving the use of force, more education of officers on racial bias, and more transparency about officer misconduct. Routine psychological evaluations of officers should also be required, according to panelists.

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These and other police reforms, including a proposed prohibition on the use of chokeholds like the one Minneapolis police used on Floyd in May, are similar to those recommended earlier Monday by a state House panel examining similar issues. Both reports also discuss decriminalizing low-level offenses, including marijuana possession.

But the task force, whose 24 members also included civil rights advocates, attorneys and law enforcement officers, went much further in their suggestions, many of which would need General Assembly approval.

Among its 125 recommendations are calls to eliminate cash bail for criminal suspects not believed as threats to the public and to reduce court costs and fines paid by those who are convicted.

The report also calls on further restricting prosecution of death penalty cases by raising the suspect’s age to 21 and by reinstituting a 2009 law that addressed racial bias that has since been repealed. Many panelists also backed a “truth and reconciliation commission” that would chronicle North Carolina’s history of racial inequity with crimes and punishments.

“North Carolina’s criminal justice system is afflicted with longstanding systemic racism,” the report said, citing slavery and segregation. “It is pervasive and wrong and must be remedied.”

The report says all police officers on patrol should be required to wear body cameras — currently it’s up to each department — and for footage to be released within 45 days of a violent incident. State law now prohibits such a release unless ordered by a judge.

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Stein told reporters that not everyone on the panel agreed with the all of the findings. Still, he said, the report was approved unanimously last week in the name of building momentum for action. Task force members pointed to data showing Black adults are six times as likely as white adults to be incarcerated, twice as likely to be pulled over for a traffic stop and more likely to be jailed before a trial.

The panel plans to meet quarterly through 2022 with a goal of implementing recommendations. Some of them can be carried out by police departments or sheriffs’ offices.

The report is the “next step towards the actions that North Carolina must take to end racial disparities in the criminal justice system, not the final word,” Earls said in a release.

When it comes to legislative action, the recommendations by the House Select Committee on Community Relations, Law Enforcement and Justice approved on Monday may describe where the Republican-controlled General Assembly could find consensus in the short term with the panel.

Task force member Rep, Marcia Morey, a Durham County Democrat, said she’s hopeful the two parties can unite further on criminal justice reforms as they have had recently on erasing criminal records and raising the age in which youths are tried in adult court. Bipartisan agreement could center upon improving training standards, banning chokeholds and preventing officers liable for misconduct from moving quietly to other departments.

Cooper, who like Stein and Earls is a Democrat, said the “recommendations begin to help chart a more equitable course” for a justice system “that allows different outcomes for people of color.”

The panel led by Earls and Stein recommended misdemeanor possession counts of holding up to 1.5 ounces of pot should become civil offenses similar to traffic infractions. The House report recommends the General Assembly review the classification of low-level criminal offenses, including those involving some controlled substances like marijuana, but didn’t include many specifics.

A disproportionate percentage of people convicted of simple possession of marijuana are non-white, the report said.