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State budget proposal reduces several crimes to misdemeanors

The landscape of North Carolina's criminal laws may be changing, at least for many small offenses. Specifically, the new budget reclassifies many criminal offenses into misdemeanors, with penalties that cannot include jail time.

Lawmakers' motivation behind the reclassification is apparently financial. The move is expected to reduce court time, as well as the need for a public defender for the new misdemeanor crimes.

The reason for the financial savings is not automatic, but based on past data that indicates that over 90 percent of criminal defendants without lawyers opt for a guilty plea and fine, as opposed to going through with a criminal trial.

With over a dozen crimes changed to misdemeanor status, accused individuals may believe it easier to simply pay a fine and get on with their lives. That could mean less strain on the judicial system, and potential savings. Notably, the budget also contained cuts to its public defender budget.

Criminal records are easy to search on the Internet, and may result in lasting consequences to an individual. For example, an arrest for a small amount of marijuana may not implicate anything more than a misdemeanor.

However, that pleading guilty to that drug possession charge could haunt a defendant for years to come. From job interviews to applying for student loans or professional licenses, a criminal record involving even a misdemeanor drug possession charge could jeopardize an applicant’s chances. In addition, a guilty plea may count as a first offense, and any subsequent convictions could result in escalated penalties and sentencing. Accordingly, anyone arrested for drug possession should consider talking with a criminal defense attorney. 

Source: Slate, “Wait, Are You Sure You Want to Plead Guilty?” Spencer Woodman, Dec. 23, 2013

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