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Steinburg bill gives judges leeway in some drug cases

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Bob Steinburg

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Certain nonviolent drug offenders could get lesser or no prison time, under new legislation proposed by state Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan.

Steinburg and two other Republican senators filed the North Carolina First Step Act, or Senate Bill 404, late last month, which is now moving through committees.

In an interview Friday, Steinburg said the bill follows in the footsteps of similar “First Step” legislation that President Donald Trump recently signed into law. The federal law and S404 seek to allow people facing prison time for drug abuse — but with otherwise clean records — to serve either shorter or no prison sentence.

S404 would change N.C. General Statute 90-95, which provides for mandatory minimum sentences for offenders convicted of possessing such quantities of illegal drugs that they aren't simply considered users, but drug traffickers.

For example, anyone guilty of possession of 10 pounds of marijuana but fewer than 50 pounds would face just over two years' prison time. Also, anyone guilty of possessing more than four grams but fewer than 14 grams of illicit opioids, including heroin, would a minimum prison sentence of almost six years.

Steinburg said he's spoken often with constituents about the heavy toll that some mandatory minimums take on families. Often people convicted as drug traffickers are really just addicts, and have committed no offenses beyond possession and their own, personal drug abuse, he said.

After becoming chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety a few months ago, Steinburg said he's further studied the issue of drug incarcerations.

When the state sends drug users with otherwise clean records to prison, instead of steering them to treatment and rehabilitation, “I don't know who that helps,” he said.

Steinburg stated that the state's current mandatory minimums give judges no discretion to reduce prison time for such offenders, or simply sentence them to probation. S404 would allow such discretion.

The bill would allow a judge to find “substantial and compelling reasons,” based on the crime, history of a defendant, and their chances of rehabilitation, not to apply the law’s mandatory minimum sentences if doing so would result in “substantial injustice to the defendant” and not be “necessary for the protection of the public.” Judges who found those compelling reasons could reduce a defendant’s fines and sentences below the minimums, and even sentence the defendant to probation instead of prison.

The bill also provides that, for offenders already in prison who meet the legislation’s criteria, they may file for reduced sentences.

Judges may not offer reduced sentences and fines, however, to anyone they determine organized or led a criminal enterprise.

Steinburg said the bill would not help “drug pushers,” whom he said should continue serving long sentences. He stressed the bill is designed to help people struggling with drug abuse, not dealing drugs.

Steinburg also said he's spoken with judges who've told him they regret sentencing some people to a decade or more in prison for possession, but had no alternative under current law.

Asked about Steinburg’s bill, District Attorney Andrew Womble said he opposes it.

“I would not be in favor of this,” he said.

Womble said the mandatory minimums at issue are clearly for traffickers who carry large quantities of drugs.

“We are not talking about the typical street user,” he said.

Womble also said that, when his office brings charges against defendants for simple drug possession — especially those who committed a first offense and otherwise are in good standing — the vast majority get deferred prosecution.

Womble continued that, if lawmakers were looking to change to the mandatory minimums, it would be better to raise the weight thresholds that trigger long sentences. That would be a less subjective approach, he explained.

Responding to some of Womble's concerns, Steinburg said the district attorney should be willing to trust judges' discretion, and their ability to fairly weigh all facts in a given case.

Steinburg also suggested Womble — and possibly other opponents of the bill — might be concerned about seeming “soft on crime.” But he reiterated the bill is trying to help people who haven't harmed others — just themselves — and make them productive citizens.

Steinburg also said his legislation includes support from other conservatives, including his cosponsors, state Sens. Warren Daniel and Danny Britt, who are attorneys, and conservative groups such as Americans For Prosperity.

Steinburg also noted that, when someone starts racking up drug possession charges and court fines, it adds further strain that can lead them to commit more serious crimes.

Steinburg also said the state's current approach to drug sentencing isn't sustainable. Based on state data, he said it's projected the state's prison population will outgrow prison capacity in 2025-26. That will force the state to spend more taxpayer dollars on more prisons, and keep taking a toll on many families, he said.

“If we do nothing, the human cost, as well as the fiscal cost, will be greater,” Steinburg said.

Chief Public Defender Thomas Routten could not be reached for comment on this story.

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