N.C. veterans with PTSD could receive lesser sentences under proposed law
By Taylor Knopf and Rose Hoban
Legislation that could lessen criminal sentences for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) breezed through a judiciary committee and then a floor vote in the state House of Representatives on Tuesday.
House Bill 483 would allow a judge to consider a person’s PTSD as a “mitigating factor” during sentencing if the offender can prove military service in a combat zone which resulted in a PTSD diagnosis. This means the judge could lighten the sentence based on the diagnosis, but in no way creates a mandate.
Senate Bill 402 is its companion bill.
Rep. Grier Martin (D-Raleigh), an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the idea came from a similar law passed in Oklahoma, which he said has been successful.
“As a result of their service to us, our service members are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at increased rates,” Martin said. “As a result of the PTSD, they are more likely to have an interaction with the criminal justice system.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, between 11 and 20 of every 100 veterans who served in Iraq have PTSD in a given year. For the Gulf War, it’s about 12 out of every 100 veterans. And it’s estimated that about 30 out of every 100 Vietnam veterans have had PTSD at some point in their life.
Martin said a PTSD diagnosis doesn’t excuse a crime or mean a person is not guilty.
“We already have a provision in North Carolina to allow a judge to consider mental illness to some extent in sentencing,” he added, “but this bill would make it really clear to the judge that they are empowered to consider PTSD as a result of military service when determining what the appropriate sentence is.”
A good number of veterans with PTSD have ended up in the criminal justice system around Cumberland and Onslow county, where a lot of returning service members settle, Martin said. However there are an estimated 736,000 veterans in North Carolina, who live all over.
Martin said Veterans Treatment Courts have done a lot for folks who have less severe charges. For example, many vets end up with intertwined substance abuse issues along with PTSD. Ideally, these veterans would be referred to the treatment courts.
Although the bill passed unanimously during the committee meeting, during debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Mt. Airy) called the measure “unnecessary,” noting that having a mental health disorder can already be considered as a mitigating factor by a judge during sentencing.
Bill co-sponsor Rep. Lee Zachary (R-Yadkinville) said he had asked for this to be added as a potential mitigating factor.
“The reason for that was that the other mitigating factors don’t necessarily require that the defendant be engaged in treatment,” he said. He noted someone could be diagnosed with PTSD after committing a crime, but would need to have gotten into treatment in order to take advantage of the sentencing factor.
“They will refer to treatment recognizing that jail isn’t the best response,” Martin said.
Some of these cases don’t even require an admission of guilt. Those are not the cases Martin is targeting with House Bill 483, which only deals with sentencing in traditional court setting.
However, he said it’s a related issue and “veterans treatment courts are clearly the way of the future and we have to move forward on those also.”
Back seat passengers in N.C. may need to buckle up soon or pay a fine
By Taylor Knopf
Not all backseat passengers wear seat belts, despite it being North Carolina law. But soon, it could become a reason for police to pull a driver over.
House Bill 672 would impose a $25 fine on those who don’t wear seat belts in the rear seat of a vehicle.
“A lot of people don’t like to wear seat belts, but a lot of them wish they had once they get in an accident,” said primary bill sponsor Rep. John Faircloth (R-High Point) during a meeting of a House judiciary committee on Tuesday.
He said he wanted to introduce the bill after hearing about more unbelted backseat passengers thrown out of cars during accidents.
“The front seat folks are OK because they are wearing seat belts,” Faircloth said.
He added that under current law, a police officer cannot stop someone for the sole purpose of telling people in the back seat to buckle up.
The $25 fine is mainly to deter people from failing to buckle up, but it would also make North Carolina eligible for a federal program to receive money from a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration program, Faircloth said.
Bill Hall, researcher at University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, spoke at the committee and confirmed that setting a fine of $25 would make the state eligible for incentive funds of about $1.5 million per year. It could go toward things such purchasing child car seats for distribution in underserved areas, or creating a teen traffic safety program.
Faircloth clarified for the committee that a driver would not receive points on their license for unbuckled backseat passengers. And he said that visitors from other states would have to adhere to the law if passed, regardless of whether they have a similar law in their home state.
The bill unanimously passed through the judiciary committee and was sent to the House finance committee for consideration.