District Court defense attorneys see it and say it all the time: Those who come to their courtrooms often aren’t habitual or hardened criminals. “They’re just people who messed up,” one such attorney says. “And everybody messes up.”
That’s particularly true of younger people, who sometimes are entitled to make mistakes without having the stigma of conviction follow them around.
Durham Senior District Court Judge Marcia Morey notes that a criminal charge has bad side effects, making it difficult for young people to get a job or an apartment or to apply for financial aid. She’s already established a successful program for 16- and 17-year-olds, called youth misdemeanor diversion, that allows those facing first offenses to interact with counselors and judges and participate in workshops to get them on the straight and narrow. If they finish the program, they’ve got a fresh and unblemished start.
Now, with a grant from the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission for a coordinator, this type of program will apply to 18- to 21-year-olds facing first offenses such as minor marijuana possession and shoplifting. Those charged with crimes involving firearms, sexual offenses and traffic violations are not eligible.
The arresting officer would decide whether someone qualifies for the free program Individuals would have 90 days to complete it, participating in workshops tailored to the charges they faced, things like alcohol and drug education and conflict resolution. The participants also would consult with a judge about their behavior.
The judge has seen the benefits of the program for younger people. The overwhelming majority of teens who completed the program for 16- and 17-year-olds have done well. Only a handful are looking at new criminal charges. Now, judges all over North Carolina are studying the program.
Daryl Atkinson, attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, likes this new program. “I am glad,” he said, “that the city has taken this important first step to acknowledge and embrace the value that young people make mistakes.”
Good judges temper their rulings with common sense and compassion. Judge Morey has gone further, and she’s injected wisdom into the equation. Thanks to this program, there are going to be more productive members of society among us and fewer who are lost but didn’t need to be.