There are more teens processed in the adult criminal system in North Carolina than the juvenile system. That may not come as a surprise to most, but what many officials don’t know is that they don’t have to wait for the state to raise the age to stop criminalizing 16- and 17-year-olds.
The Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice hosted a conference in Durham on Friday to inform officials in interested cities and counties of Misdemeanor Diversion Programs (MDP).
The first MDP was established in 2014 in Durham County and it has had a 98 percent completion rate so far among its 209 juveniles. The program is a last stop for teens with no prior adult record who would have otherwise been arrested or cited and sent to adult court.
There are different types of MDPs, but most consist of about 90 days of educating and monitoring first-time offenders and pairing them with services while allowing them to avoid a criminal charge that could follow them for life.
“It’s not changing the law, it’s saying let’s look at these kids that we deal with … a criminal record can change their lives forever,” said Judge Marcia Morey. “This is not an economic issue, this is about doing what’s morally right, what’s socially right and giving our kids a chance.”
Morey and coordinator Kelly Andrews anchor the Durham County MDP. Morey holds mock trials to scare the juveniles involved, and she and Andrews both take time to get to know each teen and their hopes for the future to guide them away from a criminal path.
There are also MDPs in Wake, Orange, Cumberland and New Hanover counties. Morey, along with officials from Wake and Orange counties, were part of a stakeholder panel Friday that addressed what it took to start an MDP in their respective counties.
Morey said there is need for the support of law enforcement, a great coordinator, support from a district judge and available short-term programs for the juveniles in the program. Members of the panel also pointed out that the cost to establish a MDP doesn’t have to be great – a lot of the programs they use are free through the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and there are grants available to help.
Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood spoke about being met with criticism from law enforcement at first, but how education was an important component of MDPs, not just for juveniles but also for officials.
“Don’t think that your officer is going to feel like less of an officer for having this option – they want this option,” Blackwood said. “Folks, your officers have hearts the size of Texas and they want to make positive change.”
He added that with Google and advanced technology, juveniles could no longer rely on expungements, and that they shouldn’t have to start their adult lives by having to explain away an arrest record to get into college or get a good job.
There were also three teens at the conference who were recently referred to the Durham County MDP. They only used their first names to keep their privacy and did not talk about what they were initially charged with.
Most teens referred to the program are charged with either larceny or possession of marijuana, according to statistics from the county.
“I think this program really awakened me,” said Ty, an 18-year-old who is currently enrolled at a local community college. “I don’t know if it weren’t for this program if I would have the same attitude about my future.”
All three of the teens said at the time they were caught, they had no idea they could be charged as adults and that most of their friends also had no idea. They said they didn’t think it was fair that teens aren’t taught about the laws that could affect them, and that had they known, they probably would have thought twice about their bad decisions.
“It’s really making me think about things before I do them,” Ty said. “You really don’t know how bad things can be until you get caught. I’ve totally just straightened my life out and really put my priorities straight.”
For more information about MDPs, visit the Youth Justice Project here.