By Dallas Woodhouse
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — In a compelling community forum, a woman described her heartbreaking involvement with the criminal justice system before Democratic party activists across the state.
During a Community Listen Forum sponsored by the N.C. Democratic Party on Tuesday evening, Dreama Caldwell described how her life changed forever when, in 2015 at age 42, she was working at a child care facility in Orange County when an employee at the school left a child on one of the daycare’s buses for several hours. Caldwell was the director and manager of the center and was charged with felony child abuse. She turned herself in and was placed under a $40,000 secured bond, a condition for pretrial release.
Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth; Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford; Rep. Carla Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg; Rep. Ricky Huratdo, D-Alamance; and Rep Zack Hawkins, D-Durham; listened intently to Caldwell and others with similar stores what exactly needs to be done now — and done first — on criminal justice reform.
Caldwell was confident in her innocence, adamant she cared for those children, and never abused anyone. Her sister cashed in her 401K to bail her out, but then she was tapped out, too.
For 18 months, with a felony charge hanging over her head, she struggled to find work, and keep food on the table. Caldwell says the system forces innocent people to plead guilty. She was stunned when her attorney told her “innocent people plead guilty all the time.”
She could not afford the additional $5,000 to go to trial. Trapped, broke, and seemingly out of options, Caldwell pled guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to three days in jail.
“People say, it was just three days, but in reality, it is a life sentence,” Caldwell told the activists and lawmakers.
“I had to sleep on the floor,” Caldwell said. “It was three days of my freedom I will never get back. I will never get the sounds listening to women cry and cry out of my mind.”
She says she deals with that plea every day and every time she tries to get a job.
Under current N.C. law, her conviction can’t be expunged. With two decades of management experience, and a degree, she says she “can’t get a job at a fast-food restaurant.” She is routinely shut out of loans and housing.
Caldwell also has been denied loans and housing because of her criminal background. She continually faces fees as part of the probation system, a continuing financial hardship.
“Let’s be clear, we are criminalizing being poor.”
It’s people like Dreama Caldwell who are driving criminal justice reform in North Carolina.
Senator Dan Blue, D-Wake, says the over reliance of “user fees” to fund criminal justice, is just one area lawmakers are hoping to address.
“The court fees and fines sort of underscore a bigger problem, “said Blue. “People who get caught up in the criminal justice system ought not be the ones expected to pay for it.”
Earlier in the day, Senate Minority leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, and House Democrat leader Robert Reives, D-Chatham, hosted a press conference with Democrat legislators focusing on 26 bills they have filed to reform criminal justice.
As noted by The Mountaineer, the legislation calls for reforms to the cash bail system, law enforcement policy, court appearance penalties, the death penalty, sentencing, and incarceration policies.
“We have filed a comprehensive list of bills that address inequities and injustices in our court and jails, reforms to law enforcement practices, as well as providing funding and guidelines for additional officer training,” Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, D-Mecklenburg, said Tuesday during the briefing.
While the Democrats highlighted their broad views of criminal justice reform with a nearly endless list of ideas and bill, they struggled to articulate what legislation should draw the most focus and become the top priority.
Bipartisan consensus is developing in some areas. As reported by The Associated Press, one state Senate committee approved a criminal justice reform package focused on targeting overly aggressive officers while giving more mental health assistance to police and deputies. It does not incorporate task force recommendations on the use of cash bonds or no-knock warrants, but it does establish public database to check the status of an officer’s certification.
“Right now, an officer can have a lot of problems with one department but be allowed to resign at one department and go to another department police or sheriff’s department,” Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, told Spectrum News. “That police chief hires him and has no way to know what may be in his file.”
The State House has a companion bill to Britt’s under consideration.
Speaker Tim Moore’s Chief of Staff Neal Inman recently indicated on Twitter that GOP success in the 2020 election, in which Republicans gained four seats in the state House, means “bipartisan proposals on criminal justice reform move forward, extreme left wing wishlists do not.”
The John Locke Foundation advocates for series of reforms to address “overcriminalization,” or policy “that reduces consistency in enforcement, erodes confidence in the rule of law, and wastes scarce law enforcement resources that could otherwise be devoted to preventing and punishing serious crimes against persons and property.”
Pointing to North Carolina’s massive and disorganized criminal code, JLF is pushing lawmakers to clean up. The state has crimes are scattered across more than 140 chapters of the General Statutes, thousands of pages of the administrative code, and more than 650 county and municipal codes of ordinances. According to researchers, there is no publicly available database where the average citizen can find all the crimes a person or a business can commit in our state.
Advocates for “Mens Rea” reform say the state should consolidate the entire body of revised criminal law into a single, well-organized, easily intelligible chapter of the General Statutes, while eliminating all crimes that are obsolete, unnecessary, redundant, or unconstitutional, and where appropriate, downgrade minor regulatory and municipal offenses from crimes to civil infractions.