Other laws enforced starting Dec. 1 will reduce potential punishments for misdemeanors labeled the least likely to require incarceration — changing from community service or probation to a fine in most cases.
One law would more than double maximum prison terms for the most serious child abuse charge from roughly 15 years to 33 years. Another creates a requirement that parents alert authorities when they neither know the location of their child under 16 nor had contact with them for 24 hours. Failing to do so will be a low-grade felony, with no jail time on a first offense.
The two laws are named for preschoolers. One is Kilah Davenport of Concord, who authorities say was severely beaten in May 2012. She was 3, and her stepfather is charged with felony child abuse. The case has not been resolved.
The other law is in memory of Caylee Anthony, the Florida girl whose disappearance went unreported by her mother for a month in 2008. Remains of the 2-year-old were found six months later. Caylee's mother was acquitted of murder in her daughter's death in 2011 but convicted of lying to investigators.
In the aftermath of the Anthony case, many states passed laws similar to the one that the North Carolina General Assembly approved this year and Gov. Pat McCrory signed. North Carolina didn't have an exact time period after which a parent was required to report a missing child to authorities, a bill sponsor of "Caylee's Law" said.
"I probably received more emails about that particular incident than any other incident," said Rep. Kelly Hastings, R-Gaston. "The real driving force behind this legislation was the overwhelming number of communications by constituents who were outraged."
The law also makes it a misdemeanor for any person who fails to report to police within a "reasonable time" the person's suspicions that a child has disappeared or may be in danger. Neighbors and others are presumed to have acted in good faith are immune from prosecution when they report a possible disappearance.
More than 134,000 children were referred to county social service agencies in the state for possible abuse and neglect for the year ending June 30, 2012, according to Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina. The group was involved in crafting "Kilah's Law," said organization CEO Bud Lavery.
The legislature also voted to require a minimum $500 fine for motorists convicted of passing a stopped school bus picking up or dropping off students. A driver who hits a child will face a felony charge and a $1,250 minimum fine, rising to at least $2,500 if the collision results in death. The law is named after 11-year-old Hasani Wesley, who died last December at a Forsyth County bus stop.
Other new laws would increase punishments for those who make methamphetamine when children are present and require those convicted of human trafficking to register as sex offenders if the victim was under 18.
The state also is reclassifying 25 misdemeanor crimes that rarely result in incarceration and reducing them to the lowest grade of misdemeanor or an infraction, making them punishable only by a fine, according to state budget documents. They include speeding 15 mph over the speed limit or in excess of 80 mph, failing to carry a valid license while driving, fishing without a license, and writing worthless checks under $2,000.
At the same time, all crimes ranked in the lowest category of misdemeanor will now result only in a fine — a $200 maximum — unless the person has at least three prior convictions. Budget-writers reduced $2 million from the Office of Indigent Defense Services for handling these cases, saying legal counsel isn't required when no incarceration is possible.