A disturbing paradox of North Carolina state law is that, though sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds can't smoke, drink, or vote, they can still be prosecuted criminally. A sixteen-year-old busted for a dime bag (or for any other misdemeanor offense) is considered an adult in the eyes of the justice system in North Carolina.
This is not true anywhere else in the country except for New York—and in New York there's a program that allows these minors to be sent from the adult system to the juvenile system under certain circumstances.
"If you're sixteen or seventeen anywhere else, the juvenile courts will work with you to improve your school situation, or your mental health situation, or substance-abuse issues," says Durham County Chief District Judge Marcia Morey. "They fashion their services to help you be a productive part of the system, rather than have you start your life out with a criminal record at the age of sixteen."
Morey has been an outspoken critic of this state policy, but she's also doing something about it here in Durham. With the cooperation of the Durham County District Attorney's Office and local law enforcement agencies, Morey established the Misdemeanor Diversion Program in 2014. Today, sixteen- and seventeen-year-old misdemeanor offenders in Durham with no criminal history are eligible to participate in a ninety-day diversion program, in which they have to do community service and sit through a scared-straight educational session, where the teenage offenders see up close how severe their financial penalties—as much as $1,000 in court-related fees and costs—could have been.
There are other costs, as well. "You'll have a record showing a charge and conviction for the rest of your life," Morey says. "So when you want your first job, or your first apartment, or financial aid for college, or to sign up for the military, that record will be there to slam shut those doors of opportunity."
Morey—who serves on a variety of committees in the area, including the Durham Crime Cabinet, the Criminal Justice Advisory Committee, and the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council—took a winding road to her judgeship. Most notably, she was cocaptain of the women's swim team in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. A few years later, when the NCAA opened its doors to women's sports, Morey—by then a lawyer—became its first female investigator. During her three-year tenure with the NCAA, she investigated Charlie Pell (the disgraced Clemson and Florida football coach) and the UNLV Runnin' Rebels.
After a brief stint as a journalist in her hometown of Decatur, Illinois, Morey relocated to Chapel Hill. She landed a job in the Durham County District Attorney's Office in 1989. One of her first assignments was juvenile court.
"You hear heartbreaking stories, but it's also early enough in their lives that you can try to give hope to these kids and families about their future," Morey says. "I learned a lot during that time."
She founded the Durham County Teen Court program, a precursor to the educational aspect of the Misdemeanor Diversion Program. She also saw what she considered various forms of injustice baked into the system.
"At that time, any judge could throw a kid into training school, which is what they used to call juvenile prison, for any reason—shoplifting, running away from home, whatever. If they were thirteen years old, a judge could send them away until their eighteenth birthday. It was just a mess."
In 1997, Morey was appointed to a task force that produced the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, a major rewrite of the state's juvenile code. Of the task force's forty-two recommendations, forty-one were adopted. The one that wasn't? Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction to eighteen.
"And it continues to be a knife in the back to kids in our state," Morey says. "It needs to change."
In Durham, at least, things are beginning to change. So far, the Misdemeanor Diversion Program has a 98 percent success rate: of the 125 youths who have passed through it, only two were not successful, and only four received new charges. And last year, the program expanded to include nonviolent offenders between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one.
This week marks Morey's seventeenth anniversary on the Durham County bench. State law allows judges to serve until the age of seventy-two. That gives Morey about ten more years if she keeps being re-elected (she has run unopposed in every election), and if she wishes to continue to serve the citizens of Durham County.
We should be so lucky.