North Carolina is the worst place in the country to be arrested as a teenager.
A draconian state law dictates that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds picked up for misdemeanors as frivolous as littering or marijuana possession are considered adults in the eyes of the criminal justice system. Every year, thousands of North Carolina teenagers start their lives with a criminal record—and all the hardships that entails—because of dumb mistakes they made before they were even allowed to vote or serve their country. This isn't true anywhere else in America besides New York, which bests N.C. by having a "reverse waiver" provision in place that guides such teens from the adult system to juvie under certain circumstances.
Durham County has been working to combat this unnecessarily harsh law. In 2014, Durham County Chief District Judge Marcia Morey established, with the cooperation of the DA’s office and local law enforcement agencies, a diversion program for these young, small-time offenders
. Provided they have no criminal history, they are eligible to participate in a ninety-day program that includes community service and educational court sessions that lay out how damaging (and expensive) their punishment would have been. It’s been extremely successful, with a ninety-eight percent success rate so far. The program has recently expanded to include nonviolent offenders between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one.
Last week, Orange County announced that it would be implementing a similar MDP (misdemeanor diversion program) modeled after Durham’s.
“Rather than issuing a citation or making an arrest where probable cause exists, law enforcement officers in Orange County will instead issue a youth citation that will initiate the diversionary process by directing the youth to contact the MDP Coordinator,” says Orange County’s criminal justice resource manager Caitlin Fenhagen.
Judge James Bryan will preside over the educational court sessions.
“I appreciate that Orange County has nurtured long-standing as well as developing services in the areas of mental health, substance use, literacy, youth-support, mediation and skill-building to address the needs of these court participants as part of their diversion,” Judge Bryan says.
Judge Morey tells the INDY
that she’s “delighted” Orange County has decided to adopt the program.
“Although it is not a substitute for North Carolina law to be changed to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to eighteen, it is a start,” Morey says.
Morey also notes that several other counties have expressed interest in starting similar diversion programs, including Buncombe, New Hanover, Guilford, Warren, Mecklenburg, and Cumberland.