On a recent week day, about 10 16- and 17-year-olds sat quietly inside a Durham County Courthouse and got a lesson in juvenile justice.
They watched as Senior District Court Judge Marcia Morey heard the case of Brian Turner, a 17-year-old high school senior who had failed to appear for court on two charges: shoplifting a pair of Beats headphones from Wal-Mart and simple possession of marijuana, which the arresting officer found in his backpack.
Turner’s attorney, Phylicia Powers of the county’s public defender’s office, told Morey that Turner was an excellent student and a member of his school marching band who hoped to attend college in the fall.
Morey asked Turner what it felt like to be arrested at school, handcuffed and escorted out of the building in front of his classmates, after failing to show up for his original court date.
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“Embarrassing,” he replied. “The handcuffs hurt my wrist.”
He told Morey a friend had talked him into taking the headphones.
Morey was not swayed. She sentenced Turner to one year of probation and a 45-day suspended jail sentence. She also ordered him to participate in a drug assessment and treatment program while undergoing random drug tests; perform 20 hours of community service with a nonprofit; hand over his driver’s license while on probation; and pay lawyer’s fees, court costs, fines and treatment fees that totaled $1,090. If he failed to pay the money or failed to comply with any conditions of the probation, she would revoke his probation and he would be required to complete an active jail sentence.
“It’s a very harsh lesson, Mr. Turner,” Morey said.
Then she turned to the spellbound teens and told them what they had seen was not a real case.
“But what you saw happen can happen to any of you, to any of us at the age of 16 if we are charged with a crime,” Morey said.
The scene is a regular part of the the youth misdemeanor diversion program that Morey started last year with funding from Durham’s Criminal Justice Center. She also has obtained a grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission. Morey said each year about 550 16- and 17-year-olds in Durham County commit their first misdemeanor crime. Her program allows those who are referred by an arresting police officer to avoid a permanent criminal record.
Teens who participate in the program are required to attend mock trials where they witness what can happen to youths convicted of a crime.
Adolescents referred to the diversion program are required to participate in community service projects that range from 30 to 90 days in lieu of other punishment.
Kelly C. Andrews, coordinator of the program, said 93 youths now are enrolled; 54 have successfully completed it with one teen waylaid because of new criminal charges while enrolled.
The program is bolstered by an impressive array of community partners and city leaders. Other districts, including Wake, Orange, Chatham and Franklin counties, are looking to replicate the program.
“I think it’s just a common-sense approach,” Morey said. “The best way to improve their lives is to help them, not arrest them and give them a criminal record.”