Chapel Hill: Opinion

Orange County gives non-violent teen offenders a 2nd chance

Caitlin Fenhagen
Caitlin Fenhagen

Orange County recently launched a new diversionary program for 16- and 17-year-old first offenders. Law enforcement officers now have the discretion to entirely divert eligible youthful offenders from the adult court system and refer them instead to a new Misdemeanor Diversion Program (MDP).

Instead of an arrest or a citation being issued, the 16- and 17-year-old first-time, non-violent offenders will be required to contact an MDP coordinator and complete a diversionary plan that includes up to 10 hours of community service or other programming designed to address their individual needs. In addition, each participant will be required to attend one educational court session limited to MDP youth. Upon successful completion of the diversion plan within 90 days, law enforcement will be notified and no charges will ever be filed in the case.

North Carolina remains one of only two states in the country that prosecutes all 16- and 17-year-olds charged with criminal offenses in the adult justice system. Even when charges are deferred or dismissed, the youth’s record of arrest follows him or her into adulthood and has significant direct and indirect consequences for the young person. Opportunities for education, employment, citizenship, housing and public benefits are gravely impacted by an arrest record. While legislation to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction has been proposed in North Carolina and has broad support, it has to date stalled in the General Assembly. Local efforts, such as the Orange County MDP, are critical to addressing the problem of arrest records harming youth long after their charges have been resolved.

In March 2014, Durham County started the first Misdemeanor Diversion Program in the state under the supervision of Chief District Court Judge Marcia H. Morey and administration of coordinator Kelly Andrews. Later that same year, Orange County Public Defender James E. Williams Jr. convened a group of lawyers and community members to consider the Durham model and propose a similar program for Orange County.

After several meetings and considerable guidance from Morey and Andrews, a concept paper was drafted on behalf of the group by UNC Law Professor Barbara Fedders and Chapel Hill attorney Kellie Mannette. The paper was presented to the 15B Judicial District Executive Council, composed of Resident Superior Court Judges Carl Fox and Allen Baddour, Chief District Court Judge Joseph Buckner, District Attorney James Woodall, Public Defender James Williams, Orange County Clerk of Court James Stanford and Chatham County Clerk of Court Samuel Cooper. The proposal was met with strong support.

Assistant District Attorney Jeffrey Nieman and Assistant Public Defender Dana Graves were tasked with working on the details and the implementation. Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood and Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue committed their agencies to referring cases and designated MDP law enforcement liaisons in their offices to work toward the goal of developing and administering the misdemeanor diversion program for 16- and 17-year-olds. In fact, while stakeholders had some minor differences over the details in the operation of MDP, the support for the concept was unanimous and enthusiastic.

The Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Office (CJRO) was created in 2015 by the Orange County Board of County Commissioners. As manager of this office, I supervise and support existing and new jail alternatives work in the county. Nieman and Graves recommended the possibility of MDP operating under the resource office and with the commitment of the county manager, the final development plans were soon underway.

In March, our MDP planning committee presented a final proposal to the 15B Executive Council and approval was given for the April start date. District Court Judge James Bryan, who has been committed to the MDP model since it was first proposed, immediately offered to preside over the monthly court sessions. Numerous nonprofit agencies and treatment programs in Orange County have committed to working with our MDP participants.

Many committed individuals in the law enforcement and legal community have worked diligently to start Orange County’s Misdemeanor Diversion Program. We are proud to be one of the few counties in North Carolina to offer this diversion opportunity for our youth.

Caitlin Fenhagen is the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Office manager and Misdemeanor Diversion Program coordinator.