Treating young offenders as youths

Apr. 08, 2014 @ 02:47 PM

By coincidence, two stories on the front page of this newspaper Saturday called attention to a corrosive problem – and two approaches to addressing it.
The issue, which more and more people realize poses serious long-term consequences, is the growing number of young men and women – mostly men – ensnared in the judicial process. Granted, this is not about the wrongly charged or stereotypically suspected – a serious problem in its own right, but a different one.
In this case, the men and women are caught up in, as the streetwise laconically call it, “the system,” as a result of very real misdeeds. But we are in one of only two states where 16- and 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults no matter the severity of their offense. For a generation we’ve been getting “tough on crime” with stiff sentences.  Youthful indiscretions that might have been minor bumps in the passage through adolescence in an earlier day can create a permanent criminal record that severely limits job and other opportunities for a lifetime.
A top-award-winning film at the just-concluded Full Frame Documentary Film Festival chronicled the filmmaker’s foolish decision to rob a bank at 16. That crime, and the resulting three years in prison, might have crippled another young man, but Darius Clark Monroe turned his life around and turned a camera on that change in “Evolution of a Criminal.”
“Evolution,” while raising important questions, deals with a unique situation – “a lot of people just don’t get a second opportunity to succeed,” Monroe said at the film’s screening Friday.
A systemic and important approach to the early on-ramp to the prison system unfolded Friday at the Durham County Justice Center just a few blocks from the screening. Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey presided over the first Misdemeanor Diversion Program she had championed.
The program aims to keep teenagers charged with misdemeanors, often for shoplifting, larceny or simple assault, from incurring an arrest record that will trail them forever. “For minor offenses, we’re trying to avoid that arrest,” Morey said Friday.
Instead, the young offenders are offered an opportunity to do community service or complete another “diversion program.”  If they adhere to the plan, there is no arrest. If they fail to comply, they are arrested and formally charged. 
The program has the heartfelt support of police. Police Chief Jose Lopez Sr. is among those who advocate a change in state law that will send 16- and 17-year olds into the juvenile justice system rather than being tried as adults for, as Lopez put it Friday, mistakes “any of our children can make.”
We are losing far too many young men -- especially young men of color -- to “the system,” creating a growing cadre for whom educational opportunities and living-wage employment are scarce but opportunities to sink deeper into crime are bountiful.
Morey’s diversion program is an innovative and promising antidote, and we applaud it.