Originally Published: The News & Observer
Written by: Will Doran
Conservative activists stood alongside a former prison inmate and the mother of a drug dealer on Tuesday to call for criminal justice reform in North Carolina.

They’re “strange bedfellows,” said Sen. Bob Steinburg, but their support shows the wide appeal the proposed reforms have. They support a bill sponsored by Steinburg and two other Republican senators which would give judges more discretion when they sentence people convicted of drug crimes.

Senate Bill 404 could also let hundreds, or even thousands, of people serving time in North Carolina prisons for nonviolent drug crimes ask the government to reduce their sentences or even let them go free.

The bill is based on reforms in the federal justice system that Republican President Donald Trump signed into law last year, which were themselves building on other reforms under his predecessor, Democratic President Barack Obama.

The changes that passed Congress under Trump were called the First Step Act. Steinburg wants to bring a version of it to North Carolina.

“This isn’t going soft on crime,” said Steinburg, an Edenton Republican who represents much of northeastern North Carolina. “This is doing what’s right.”

Tammy Stanley said that when her son Graham was 25, he was found guilty of drug crimes and given a sentence that will keep him in jail until he’s at least 40. He had no prior criminal record and owned his own business. The judge at her son’s trial wanted to give him a shorter sentence, Stanley said, and said as much in court. But the judge’s hands were tied by laws requiring a mandatory minimum sentence.

“The judge even said that this punishment is too harsh for the crime,” Stanley said Tuesday. “I just hope that we can get this First Step Act passed.”

Despite support at the federal level from Trump and Republicans in Congress, the bill has stalled so far at North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature. It has been stuck in committee for more than two weeks. But Steinburg said he hopes having advocates like Americans for Prosperity and the American Conservative Union, two influential groups in Republican politics, will help the bill gain support.

“We can get better results for less money, less incarceration and less broken families,” said Patrick Plein of the American Conservative Union, which is the group that throws the annual CPAC conference.

Much of the impetus for these reforms is the opioid crisis, which is filling prisons with people who suffer from addiction. Steinburg said North Carolina has about 35,000 people imprisoned at any given time, and that about a quarter of them are in for drugs. But many, he said, would be better off receiving addiction treatment instead — and so would society at large.

Statistics back up the idea that giving drug users lengthy prison sentences does not lead to a reduction in drug use even as it drives up government expenses to keep users locked up. A 2018 study comparing all 50 states, by the Pew Charitable Trusts, found that “higher rates of drug imprisonment did not translate into lower rates of drug use, arrests, or overdose deaths.”

Steinburg said Tuesday it makes sense to help people who struggle with addiction, but that his bill wouldn’t help major drug dealers get back on the street sooner.

“Are you a user who needs help?” he said. “Or are you someone who’s pushing drugs as part of an organized ring? If so, I have no pity for those folks.”

Last year a legislative committee led by Republican Sen. Jim Davis and Republican Rep. Greg Murphy, and which also included law enforcement officers and judges, wrote a report in which they concluded North Carolina should do at least some of the same things the First Step Act is proposing.

One thing that committee did not recommend is allowing people who are already behind bars to be let out early under new reforms. The First Step Act did so at the federal level, and Steinburg’s North Carolina version proposes to do the same.

To argue for giving prisoners second chances, Matthew Charles came to the legislature Tuesday.

“It’s not a get out of jail free card,” said Charles, a bearded former prisoner who grew up in North Carolina.

Charles was sentenced to 35 years in prison on drug charges. He spent more than 20 years behind bars before being released because of the federal First Step Act, which Trump signed in late 2018. On Jan. 3, 2019, Charles became the first prisoner released under the First Step Act, according to the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, where he now lives.

One of the first things he did as a free man was attend Trump’s 2019 State of the Union speech, as the president’s personal guest. He now belongs to a church and travels the country with a group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums, advocating for states like North Carolina to take up the same reforms that helped him get out of prison and start to rebuild his life.

Molly Gill, the vice president of policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said Tuesday that “we urge the legislature to pass this bill as quickly as possible It is not a crazy idea.”