Promising diversion

Jan. 27, 2014 @ 04:40 PM
It is one of the agonizing dilemmas of our struggle to break the cycle of poverty that grips far too many of our fellow citizens:
Poverty and the social pathologies that can surround it – as cause and as effect – too often and understandably alienate and disengage children and adolescents. Saddled with poor preparation for learning, too many children from challenged socio-economic backgrounds lag behind their more affluent counterparts from the very first day of school. Many quickly begin a slide toward failure.
Their lack of success and other stresses in their life may pave the way toward ill-conceived associations and foolish acts. Too often, they wind up in court charged with relatively minor offenses.
But those charges can hamper their ability, already diminished by a lack of education, to find jobs. That means, in turn, they have difficulty supporting themselves and, if they become parents, their children.
Faced with a life that begins in poverty with little hope of escape, those children in turn may, as they grow up, follow the path forged by their parent or parents.
Marcia Morey, Durham’s creative and empathetic chief district court judge, has proposed an initiative that may make at least a dent in the problem. She is championing a diversion program that would provide a path for teens accused of misdemeanors to escape a permanent criminal record.
The target is not a small one. In 2012, The Herald-Sun’s Keith Upchurch reported Saturday, 640 Durham youths 16 and 17 years old were charged with a misdemeanor, including marijuana possession, shoplifting, larceny, disorderly conduct and trespassing.
Youths charged with those crimes would be diverted to a community-based program rather than jail. The program might include a conflict resolution center, community service or perhaps substance abuse treatment.
If the young man or woman completes the program successfully, no charge would be filed. Hence no record to “tattoo” them for life, limiting opportunities.
Not every misdemeanor charge would be covered by the new program – crimes involving guns, gang activity or sex offenses would be excluded. Arresting officers would have discretion in whether or not to recommend a youth take part in it. “If the officer thinks the offense is serious enough, they can still file charges,” Morey said.
The program apparently would be the first of its kind in North Carolina. It is exciting that Durham would pioneer such a novel and promising approach.
“Once a teenager gets that first arrest, they’re more likely to have repeat arrests,” Morey told Upchurch. “If we can avoid that first arrest, it’s guaranteed they’ll do much better in school and work, and their future is brighter.”
That’s reason enough to pursue the program. Moreover, for every person diverted from poverty and its corrosive cycle, the brighter our community’s future, too.