Session Law 2019-198: Criminal Law Reform became law this month. It marks an important step forward for criminal law reform.
But the bill that was signed into law looks much different from the bill that passed the Senate in May. That earlier version set out to accomplish some lofty aims. These included ending the automatic criminalization of local ordinances, creating a sunset for existing local crimes, and requiring the legislature to codify new crimes properly.
These provisions did not make it into the final version of the bill. But even without them, S.L. 2019-198 accomplishes some important goals and keeps the ball moving forward in the drive toward recodification.
Some background: Last year, the General Assembly passed Session Law 2018-69: An Act to Assist the Criminal Law Recodification Working Group, which required all administrative bodies and local governments to submit reports of all their rules/ordinances that criminalize behavior. The response rate from all groups was underwhelming, likely because S.L. 2018-69 lacked any incentives or enforcement mechanisms. That bill was a simple request. There was no reward for complying with the request. There was no penalty for ignoring the request.
S.L. 2019-198 builds on the previous bill in three important ways. First, the bill creates that incentive for local governments to submit reports. Any local government that fails to report its local crimes by the new deadline will have its power to create new crimes frozen for two years. This pause will allow the legislature to get the requested information from a static code of ordinances.
Second, S.L. 2019-198 subjects any new agency rule carrying criminal penalties to automatic legislative review. Some of these rules, which are often written and enforced by unelected officials, have stifled economic growth and ensnared unwitting entrepreneurs. Automatic review will ensure more oversight of, and democratic accountability for, the criminal code’s growth.
Third, S.L. 2019-198 directs the General Statutes Commission to study the crimes reports and recommend any rules or local laws that should be adopted statewide. This will promote uniformity in the criminal code, minimizing the variance from town to town.
These are pivotal early steps in the reform process. The local reports and the review of new rules provide critical insight into the current state of the criminal code. With these reports, lawmakers can identify trends and outliers in our local crimes. This information will guide future discussions about reforming the criminal code.
Further, this bill strengthens principles that ought to be part of the bedrock of our criminal system: transparency, fair notice to citizens, a balance between local power and state oversight, and democratic accountability for creating new offenses. These principles and others must be the center of the discussion as the march toward recodification continues.
S.L. 2019-198 is a victory for proponents of criminal law reform. Hard work and difficult decisions lie ahead. But S.L. 2019-198 moves us another step closer to a criminal code that is tough, fair, and efficient.