Durham News

Durham rolls out new program to help some first-time offenders

Some 18- to 21-year-olds caught with a small amount of marijuana, shoplifting or other misdemeanor offenses could get a second chance under a new Durham program announced Tuesday.

“This is a big deal,” said Senior District Court Judge Marcia Morey, noting that a criminal charge can keep young people from getting a job, housing or financial aid.

Under the new initiative, the arresting officer would determine whether an individual qualifies for the Durham Adult Misdemeanor Diversion Program, which is mirrored on a similar program available to those ages 16 and 17. Incidents involving firearms, sexual offenses and traffic matters would rule the program out.

Instead of being formally charged with an offense, first-time, non-violent offenders ages 18 to 21 could get about 90 days to complete program workshops tailored to their charges. Those workshops might include alcohol and drug education, employment and work-force initiatives and conflict-resolution classes.

Participants also will observe a court hearing, said Gudrun Parmer, director the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center, which will help run the program. Afterward, they will have a conversation with the judge and others about the consequences of an adult criminal record.

If they do not finish the program, their case will be referred back to the arresting officer, who can decide whether to move forward.

The program, which can serve about 60 young men and women, will be free to participants

The city and county will likely spend about $4,000 on the program this fiscal year to cover facilitators for the workshops, printing materials and bus tickets for participants.

The program grew out of recommendations from the city’s Human Relations Commission, which held months of public hearings before concluding racial bias and profiling were present in the Durham Police Department’s practices.

Among other measures, the commission recommended asking other cities, such as Seattle, about initiatives regarding making marijuana arrests a low priority.

In an August 2014 report, the city manager’s office responded that the state of Washington had made recreational use of marijuana legal, while marijuana continues to be an illegal drug within North Carolina.

So Durham officials looked instead to a program that was already in existence here. In January 2014, Morey started a youth misdemeanor diversion program for 16- and 17-year-olds.

So far, 116 teens have participated, Morey said. All but one have completed the program. Seven have had new criminal charges since participating.

Other judicial districts across the state are now looking at this.

“It is helping save their futures,” Morey said.

Daryl Atkinson, a senior attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, described the new program as “an important first step.”

The Southern Coalition was part of the Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement (FADE) coalition, whose organizing led to the Human Relations Commission report.

Another report looking at misdemeanor possession of marijuana arrests of adults 16 and older for 18 months ending June 20, 2014, found of the 739 people arrested, 86 percent were black while 9.7 percent were white and 3.8 percent were Hispanic.

Some of FADE’s demands, Atkinson said, included expanding the misdemeanor diversion program.

“I am glad that the city has taken this important first step to acknowledge and embrace the value that young people make mistakes,” Atkinson said. But he wishes the program would have a higher age limit and not be limited to first-time offenders.

“Because some young people don’t just have a bad night, they might go through a bad patch,” he said.

Scott Holmes, a N.C. Central University law professor and a community advocate for restorative justice, said he is “ecstatic” about the new program after watching the charge of misdemeanor possession of marijuana ruin young people’s lives during his 15-year career as an attorney.

Still, Holmes said he too thinks there should be a diversion program for all ages and even people with multiple offenses.

“We should be using our precious judicial resources for the most serious offenses,” he said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

Marijuana misdemeanors

Under state law, possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana is Class III misdemeanor.

Possession of a a half ounce to one-and-a-half ounces is a Class I misdemeanor.