New program would let teens avoid arrest

Jan. 25, 2014 @ 04:44 PM

A new program in Durham is set to start this spring that would let 16- and 17-year-olds who have committed non-violent misdemeanors avoid arrest and the “tattooing” effect it can have on their future.
The initiative – the first of its kind in North Carolina – was the idea of Marcia Morey, chief District Court judge in Durham County.
Morey wants to give those teens a chance for a better future by keeping an arrest off their record.
“The harm we do when we charge a 16- or 17-year-old with a minor misdemeanor offense is indelible,” Morey said. “It stays on their public record – even if it’s dismissed.”
Like flypaper, a criminal record is hard to remove.
“That kind of tattoo of a criminal arrest harms kids in employment, housing and financial aid when trying to get into college,” she said.
In 2012, 640 Durham youths in that age bracket were charged with a misdemeanor – including simple possession of marijuana, shoplifting, larceny, disorderly conduct and trespassing, Morey said.
The new program, called the Misdemeanor Diversion Project, would send them to a community-based program instead of jail. The program would be tailored to the offense, and might include a conflict resolution or mediation center, teen court where they’d be ordered to do restitution and community service, or a center for substance abuse treatment.
If they complete their program, no charge will be filed and their record will be clean.
Excluded from the program are misdemeanors that involve firearms, sex offenses or gang activity, and all felonies, Morey said.
City and county leaders are backing the initiative. They include Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez, Sheriff Mike Andrews and District Attorney Leon Stanback.
Officers would retain discretion in whether to recommend the teen for the program or cite them.
“Some misdemeanors are very serious, such as assault with a deadly weapon,” Morey said. “If officers think the offense is serious enough, they can still file charges.”
Morey plans to hold a special court monthly where she’ll talk to the teens about the importance of complying with the program.
“We want to really lecture them on the importance of this,” she said. “We want them to succeed.”
“Once a teenager gets that first arrest, they’re much more likely to have repeat arrests,” Morey said. “If we can avoid that first arrest, it’s guaranteed they’ll do much better in school and work, and their future is brighter.”