DURHAM — Nine 16- and 17-year-olds had their first day in court through a new system meant to keep youngsters from entering adult life with criminal records.
“We want you to understand how important a clean record is,” Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey told the teens last week. “It means everything for your future.”
The project allows 16- and 17-year-olds charged with minor crimes to go through a confidential process of community service, counseling and a court appearance leading to dismissal of their arrest records without criminal charges.
“This is a serious, serious program,” said Assistant District Attorney Shamieka Rhinehart. “This is your one chance.”
North Carolina is the one state where the criminal justice system treats 16-year-olds as adults. Younger offenders are handled through a juvenile system that keeps their records closed, but after turning 16 any arrest is a matter of public record even if charges have been dismissed.
“Once you're charged with something, your name is in the system,” said Morgan Canady, an assistant public defender. “And it stays there forever ... and it is accessible by anybody.”
“Anybody” includes prospetive employers and school admissions and financial aid officers, closing doors on a young adult’s future opportunities.
“There are so many things that are all of a sudden no longer open to you,” said Gudrun Palmer, director of the county’s Criminal Justice Resource Center.
Last year in Durham, 550 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested for misdemeanors such as shoplifting, marijuana possession, and communicating a threat.
The nine teenagers in Morey’s court were the first to enter the diversion program, which allows an arresting law-enforcement officer to refer them to the program instead of filing formal charges while holding the teens responsible for whatever they have done.
Once a teenager is referred, he or she has 48 hours to contact program coordinator Kelly Andrews. Andrews interviews the teen, makes an assessment, assigns a court date and assigns a particular program.
“We have different diversion programs based on the incident and if a child has any special needs,” Andrews said. Fighting or communicating a threat might mean mediation or Teen Court; larceny, community service; narcotics, substance-abuse treatment.
“It can be more individually tailored,” she said, “which is good.”
If a youngster in diversion doesn’t do what he or she is told, the charges are filed and the teen is in the system for life.
“You’re not going to get this chance again,” said Public Defender Lawrence Campbell. “Trust me.”
One of the nine last week had completed his program and Morey officially destroyed his record. The other eight were at some stage of a program or about to start one.
Morey and Carolina Justice Policy Center Director Lao Rubert were the “masterminds behind the whole thing,” said Andrews, who became the program’s part-time coordinator about a month ago.
Morey and Rubert, and others including some in the General Assembly, want the treatment of 16- and 17-year-olds changed, and a bill currently in the General Assembly (H 725, bit.ly/1e38dNU would switch their misdemeanor charges to the juvenile system.
Morey called the current law “an unfair situation.”
“These kids, they can't buy cigarettes, they can't drink, they can't get a library card without a parent, they can't sign any contract – we treat them as kids in every respect ... except when they break the law,” she said.
School resource officers were the first group Andrews trained in the program and she trained Durham police last Friday. Sheriff’s deputies are still to go, and besides law enforcement the project involves the District Attorney and Public Defender’s offices and the Criminal Justice Resource Center, and all had things to say to the nine teenagers and parents of some of them.
But just to make the point, Morey and court staff on hand went through a mock hearing for a 16-year-old who pleaded guilty to stealing an $80 pair of jeans from a store.
“I'm going to follow the law on how serious something could be,” Morey said, before issuing a maximum sentence of six months’ supervised probation, 50 hours of community service, a 7 p.m. weeknight curfew and $910 in various fees – or 45 days in jail.
“That was not a game,” she said. “That is what our statutes say I could do with someone taking a pair of jeans. ... We want not to scare you to death but to understand.”