Durham minor misdemeanor diversion program launches for 16, 17-year-olds

Apr. 04, 2014 @ 08:11 PM

A new Durham County program designed to keep 16-and-17-year-olds from getting minor misdemeanor charges from going on their permanent records had its first day in court on Friday.

A group of older teenagers sat in a Durham County Justice Center courtroom with their parents for the first court session of Durham’s new Misdemeanor Diversion Program.

“This is a very lucky (point); you hit the lotto today,” Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez told the group of teenagers and their parents. “Take that and run with it.”

Durham County Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey worked to launch the program as a pilot, she said, after getting the backing of Lopez, the Durham County sheriff, and the district attorney.

The program is needed in North Carolina, she said, where all teenagers under the age of 18 are treated as adults by the justice system.

Through the new program, law enforcement will give 16-and-17-year-olds who would have been formally charged and arrested with minor misdemeanors an incident report.

They’re required to do community service or complete another “diversion program,” and then to appear in court.

The program is only for first-time misdemeanor offenses such as shoplifting, and doesn’t apply to firearm, traffic and sex misdemeanors.

If the teens don’t comply, they could be  formally arrested and charged.

Last year, Morey said nearly 600 teenagers were charged with misdemeanors, many of them fir larceny or simple assault.

Those charges wind up on their records, even if they’re dismissed in court, and it’s “easily accessible” she said, impacting the teens as they apply for jobs or college down the road.

“For minor offenses, we’re trying to help avoid that arrest,” Morey said.

Durham Police Department Associate Chief J.M. Peter said the program actually requires more of the teenagers than if they went through the adult justice system.

For minor misdemeanors, he said there may be no other punishment for first-time offenders than getting the arrest on their history. This program requires them to do community service.

“Now there’s a higher responsibility for the first-time offenders,” he said.

At the first court session Friday, Morey and a court staff member acted out what might happen to a 16-year-old for shoplifting a pair of jeans for the mall.

Under the law, Morey said she could sentence the teen to 45 days in jail. But in the scenario, she ended up exchanging that jail time for six months of supervised probation involving community service and a curfew.

If the teen failed to meet any requirement, she’d be in jail for 45 days. But even with that sentence, the teen still would be responsible for more than $900 in costs and fees.

 “That is what our statute says I could do for taking a pair of jeans,” Morey said. “We (don’t) want to scare you, we want you to understand,” she added, speaking to the teens in the courtroom.

Durham County Public Lawrence M. Campbell, Durham County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Paul Martin, and others spoke to the teens Friday.

In an interview before the court session, Lopez said he supports a juvenile justice system for 16-and-17-year-olds. First-time offenders can make mistakes “any of our children can make,” he said.

North Carolina is one of two states that prosecute 16-and-17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system, according to the advocacy group NC Child: The Voice for North Carolina’s Children. The other is New York.

The group is advocating for a change in state law that would allow minors under the age of 18 to start in a juvenile court system.

A bill was introduced in the state House last year that would allow first-time 16- year-olds charged for the first time with a misdemeanor to go through a juvenile system. Bill co-sponsor Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake County, said prosecutors would be given the added discretion to still charge 17 year-olds as adults.

 “It’s not a get-out-of-jail free pass; it doesn’t apply if you already have a record,” Hall said. “You only get one bite of the apple.”

Hall, an attorney, said he started his legal career as a public defender. He said he dealt with a lot of “small, petty criminal cases” involving teenagers. He said it’s easy for them to pick up something on their record.

While the bill made it to a second reading in the N.C. House, it did not pass a third. Hall said he expects the bill will likely not be picked up again until the 2015 session.