DURHAM — Every year, hundreds of Durham teenagers are cited or arrested for minor, first-time offenses and are treated as adults, getting a permanent stain on their records.
Authorities in the criminal justice system are out to change that.
“We’re trying to save the futures of these young kids,” Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey said, announcing the diversion project to the Durham Crime Cabinet last week.
“Each year … about 500 16- or 17-year-olds get charged with a misdemeanor minor offense,” Morey said. “We're not talking driving charges, no weapon charges – minor offenses” such as littering, shoplifting or shoving a fellow student.
“You have an arrest record,” she said. “That's going to affect you for financial aid for schools, enrollment into college, trying to get into the military or applying for a job.
What Morey and others in the courts and law enforcement have in mind is a process that holds the teenagers accountable for their behavior but can lead to wiping the arrest off a youngster’s record – if the youngster cooperates. Morey said she hopes the diversion program can start this spring.
Instead of a formal charge, a teenager who is caught with a joint or trespasses is sent to court for “education on how important it is to keep a clean record” and why whatever they did was wrong, Morey said. “I will lecture them until the cows come home.”
The process, which may include community service, runs two or three months and involves one or more existing programs for teens that appear headed for more serious trouble. If the teen is cooperative and successful, the charges are dismissed and the police incident report is discarded.
Currently, the arrest record is permanent even if the charge is dismissed. That, Police Chief Jose L. Lopez wrote in a letter of support, “results in detrimental consequences.” A process for erasing the record is “in the best interest of the Durham community,” he wrote.
Durham police, the Durham County Sheriff’s Office and Criminal Justice Resource Center, District Attorney Leon Stanback and several community agencies collaborated on the diversion plan.
“Everyone has come to the table to say what can we do about this issue,” Morey said. “You think – 500 kids, first-time minor misdemeanors. If we can keep their records clean, that's going to be a big dent” in a community problem.
Raising the age
Morey has taken a particular interest in juvenile offenders and their treatment by the courts and law enforcement, and she has lobbied for the state to raise the age at which young offenders are treated as adults. North Carolina is one of only two states “where a 16-year-old is considered to be an alleged adult criminal if he or she tries to shoplift a bag of Doritos,” according to Morey.
“North Carolina should be ashamed that we treat 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds, minor nonviolent offenders in this way,” she said
“If we can’t get it raised I guess this initiative is the next best thing,” said county Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who heads the Crime Cabinet along with city Councilman Eugene Brown.
The Crime Cabinet immediately and unanimously voted to endorse the diversion plan and its application for a grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission to hire a part-time coordinator.
“We'll assess it in a year with law enforcement, the police and the sheriff,” Morey said. “Durham can lead the way with this state, (and) it’s the right thing to do.”