Chapel Hill News

Orange County program sentences teen offenders to a second chance

From left, Assistant Public Defender Dana Graves and District Court Judge Jay Bryan listen as Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman speaks to four teens attending a July 6, 2016, Misdemeanor Diversion Program court hearing at the Chapel Hill Courthouse in Chapel Hill, NC. The program helps 16- and 17-year-olds avoid a criminal record for their first misdemeanor offense.
From left, Assistant Public Defender Dana Graves and District Court Judge Jay Bryan listen as Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman speaks to four teens attending a July 6, 2016, Misdemeanor Diversion Program court hearing at the Chapel Hill Courthouse in Chapel Hill, NC. The program helps 16- and 17-year-olds avoid a criminal record for their first misdemeanor offense. tgrubb@newsobserver.com

A dozen teens are doing time in the community this summer instead of months at the probation office, paying hefty fines and learning to live with a criminal record.

The latest group to join Orange County’s new Misdemeanor Diversion Program faced marijuana, underage drinking and cyberstalking charges. They were 16 and 17 years old, but they would have been treated as adults under state law.

The program – eventually expected to serve up to 200 offenders a year – is not available to teens charged with traffic, sex or firearm-related crimes.

The consequences of crime don’t stop at punishment, local officials said.

A conviction creates a lifetime of challenges: losing your driver’s license or financial aid for college, being deported, getting your family evicted from public housing, and missing out on a job or home loan.

Being a teenager today is much different than it was 10 or 20 years ago, Carrboro Police Sgt. Will Quick said.

“The avenues that you all have to run afoul of the law seem to be so vast now, and the culture of society is accountability and punishment for bad decisions,” he said. “We don’t want to see that follow you and be your ghost for the rest of your life.”

Orange County’s Misdemeanor Diversion Program started in April and is modeled on one in Durham County. Instead of charging teen offenders, police officers and deputies hand them a card directing them to contact coordinator Caitlin Fenhagen within 72 hours.

The officer then sends a report to Fenhagen, who determines the teen’s eligibility and collaborates on a plan for getting them on track, performing community service and attending a court hearing to learn about legal consequences. Those who don’t complete the program can be prosecuted.

Shoplifting case

The court hearing is public – the first Wednesday of every month – but the teens’ identities remain confidential. The most recent session opened with a mock case about a teen who was stopped for shoplifting and found with marijuana.

Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman listed a litany of penalties the girl should face, from 18 months of supervised probation and fines to drug and alcohol evaluation, and losing her license for 60 days.

That’s too harsh, Assistant Public Defender Dana Graves argued. Her client is a good person who played soccer before graduating from high school, is college-bound and a community volunteer. She’s working part-time, and her grandparents are taking her out of state soon for a golf tournament.

Probation could cost her the trip, Graves said, and it would be a hardship if she lost her driver’s license and had to pay several hundred dollars in fees and fines. Graves argued for unsupervised probation that would allow the girl to attend the tournament.

Under the circumstances, the trip is off, District Court Judge Jay Bryan said. He sided with Nieman on a harsher penalty.

“I am sorry, because of the relationship with a grandparent – and that’s a wonderful opportunity – but perhaps it will make an impression on you for the next time somebody asks you to do something, and you’ll think about it,” Bryan said.

The teens sat silently watching as the hearing unfolded. Michelle Guarino, with the Chapel Hill Police Department Crisis Unit, crossed the room, looking each one in the eye. What makes you special, she asked, prodding them to say it louder.

“When you do something that is a bad decision, oftentime that overshadows who you are and it takes over,” she said. “If you allow that to take over ... you think that’s who you are and that’s all you can do.”

She asked the adults to answer the same question while looking at their teens. It brought tender smiles and mist to some eyes.

“This is all that matters,” Guarino said.

Driving it home

The county’s first Misdemeanor Diversion Program court hearing, in June, had eight first-time offenders. Seven are completing a 90-day program of community service, plus any individual treatment programs. One, who got in trouble for fighting, was referred to Teen Court instead, said Katie Giduz, with Volunteers for Youth.

The nonprofit group and others are providing treatment and community service assignments, from working in local gardens and at the farmer’s market to helping the hungry through a local food pantry, Giduz said. It may seem more fun than punishment but keeps them interested and engaged, she said.

“Once they attend that educational court session, I think that really drives home the point,” Giduz said. “Overall, I felt like kids were very grateful for the opportunity, and therefore they were more motivated to complete everything as soon as possible.”

Prosecutors and police won’t be as forgiving in the future, Neiman said, because breaking the law is a bad decision, not a mistake.

“A mistake, I think, sounds more like you’re walking along the street and didn’t see a crack in the sidewalk and you tripped over it,” he said. “I think you will grow more when you think of these things as bad decisions, because you can correct a bad decision.”

The choice is between being a leader or a follower, said local businessman Michael Epps said.

His friends chose to be followers when one showed up on the street with bags of “stuff” and money, he said. The others got curious, and they committed a crime that landed one in prison and got the younger one a slap on the wrist.

The younger guy wasn’t so lucky next time, Epps said, getting five years in prison. He got out, couldn’t find a job and turned to crime, getting 12 more years. During that time, the friend’s brother beat his mom, killing her, Epps said.

Guards took him in shackles to the funeral, Epps said; he had to ask someone to kiss his mother goodbye.

“As a result of following someone, it put him in this position, and to this day – he’s 51 years old – he’s never forgiven himself for not being there for his mother,” Epps said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

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