Second of two stories. Click here for the first.
North Carolina is one of just two states that automatically charges 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. But in several counties, the court system is working with local law enforcement to give would-be young offenders a second chance.
One Durham judge says 'Enough'
Durham Chief District Judge Marcia Morey was really tired of handing out adult criminal convictions for 16- and 17-year-olds charged with minor offenses. But that is what the law requires in North Carolina. One case that really irked Morey was when a police officer cited a 16-year-old for throwing a Mountain Dew bottle into the bushes on the American Tobacco Trail.
"When she didn’t come to court, he went to her school and arrested her in front of her classmates, put handcuffs on her, brought her down to the magistrate’s office on a failure to appear in court." Morey said. "The underlying charge was throwing a Mountain Dew plastic bottle into the bushes. She now has a record."
That record can have devastating effects on a young person’s future. Students can be denied financial aid, college admission and professional licensure in any number of fields, from cosmetology to medicine. Their whole families can be kicked out of public housing.
After years of watching the state fail to raise the age of adult criminal conviction, Morey decided to take matters into her own hands. In January of 2014 she started the Misdemeanor Diversion Program.
A hands-on education in consequences
In a courtroom at the Durham County Justice Center, about a dozen young people and their parents watch from the gallery as a slight, well-coiffured girl makes her way to the defense counsel table. She’s probably in her late teens.
All the young people watching are about her age, and within the last month or so, they all had their first run-in with law enforcement for minor crimes like shoplifting or a fight at school. But instead of charging them, officers sent them into Judge Morey’s Misdemeanor Diversion Program.
They think they’re going to get a lecture from Morey after she finishes one last case on her docket. What they don’t know is that this entire court proceeding is totally staged for their benefit.
"No one knows before we start that this is not a real case. But it is real charges and real consequences. So everything we do in the courtroom can be done by law," Morey explained in an interview before the fake session.
The young defendant is a volunteer, and she’s not using her real name. Judge Morey and the two attorneys have dreamed up a crime for her that may hit home for some of the people in the program: she was caught stealing an iPhone at the mall with two friends, and the cop found marijuana in her bag. In this fake case, Morey throws the book at her: a 45-day suspended jail sentence, $1,000 in court costs, a year of probation, she even takes away her driver's license.
"You’ll need to hand that over," Morey tells the "defendant" sternly. "During the period of probation, you will not be allowed the privilege of having a driver’s license."
A look back at the young faces in the gallery shows some are stunned. But it's the parents who appear the most shaken with the consequences.
"I'm like, 'Good Lord! Let me help her!'" said one mother after the session.
After the sentencing, Morey lets the program participants and their parents in on the ruse. A giant breath goes out in the courtroom. Morey and the attorneys follow with a lecture about the collateral consequences of starting a criminal record at 16. She asks if anyone has any questions.
"Who planted that?" asks one teenager. "Because y’all scared me!"
Wrap-around services for would-be offenders
This isn’t where the program ends. Program coordinator Kelly Andrews connects the young people with services they might need, like counseling, and maybe a few consequences, like community service.
"You have much better chances when you deal with a young person that way, rather than getting them involved in an adult criminal justice system, which for teenagers a lot of times can become a revolving door," she said, noting that when teenagers and their families can't afford the fines, they can remain perpetually trapped in probation.
Since the program started in 2014, 85 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds who completed it have kept their records clean, and similar programs have been started in seven other counties. In 2015, Durham extended the program to first-time nonviolent offenders aged 18-21. In that age group, 100 percent of the people who have completed the program have kept their records clean.
No substitute for 'raising the age'
Morey says the program is not a replacement for raising the age of adult prosecution—especially since officers use their discretion in deciding who to charge and who to divert. In Durham, the city police department automatically puts first-time non-violent youth offenders into the program. But officers with Durham County Sheriff's Office have kept their discretion.
"As long as officers have discretion, we get uneven results," Morey explained. "So we could have an officer divert one kid and then by law say charge another one for a similar offense. Raising the age is a level playing field for everyone."
If the state does raise the age this year, Morey says the program will continue and focus on nonviolent first-time offenders between ages 18 and 21.
Check out the first installment of this two-part series: Branded For Life: NC One Of Two States That Prosecutes Teens As Adults.