The girl, 17, stood in front of the judge on Friday, looking down and speaking faintly.
The charge was misdemeanor larceny. The defendant, Starr Smith, stole a pair of $80 jeans from Sears at Northgate Mall. She missed her first court date and spent a night in jail.
Marcia Morey, the chief district judge for Durham County, addressed the girl matter-of-factly.
“A night in jail?” said Morey. “How was it, bad?”
“Yeah,” whispered Starr, wearing a hair barrette and small nose ring.
“Really bad? Were you scared?”
Morey issued a 30-day jail sentence, which she suspended in lieu of six months’ probation and 25 hours of community service. The judge then ordered the girl to pay $180 in court cost and restitution, a $50 fine, a $250 community service fee, a $110 attorney fee and a $240 probation fee. Because Starr admitted to having experimented with marijuana, Morey imposed a $150 risk assessment fee. She also barred Starr from returning to Northgate.
In the front row of the courtroom. a group of 10 16- and 17-year-old offenders watched the action. Seated behind them were their parents, along with several Durham officials including two school board members and three county commissioners.
“What you just saw can happen to anyone 16 or older for any misdemeanor crime,” Morey told the teenagers. Then she said something that came as a surprise to several people in the courtroom.
“Starr is not her real name,” said Morey, gesturing toward the defendant. “She didn’t do it.”
“Starr,” in fact, was a 17-year-old senior at Southern High School named Shakia, who was acting out a skit. She was one of the first participants in Durham County’s misdemeanor diversion program for juveniles, launched by Morey in April. Last year Shakia got into an argument at school, and was issued a disorderly conduct citation. She resisted the officer’s arrest, earning a second citation.
Like Shakia, the 10 teens in the courtroom had been arrested for first-time misdemeanors. Rather than be charged as adults, as is the custom in other jurisdictions, they had agreed to participate in the 40-day diversion program; if they successfully fulfill classroom and community service requirements, their criminal arrest records will be wiped clean.
“We’re trying to give you an example,” said Morey from the bench. “One-thousand dollars to avoid thirty days in jail is pretty rough, isn’t it? This state is the toughest in the country for people who, beginning on their 16th birthday, are treated in court as adults.”
Morey has been publicly critical of North Carolina’s laws, which send 16- and 17-year-olds to adult courts. Their criminal records typically follow them into adulthood, making it hard for them to apply for jobs and secure housing or federal loans for college.
Last month N.C. House Bill 725 — the “Raise the Age Bill” — won a vote on the House floor. The law would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 for misdemeanor crimes. The bill, which would be fully implemented in 2020, now moves to the Senate.
In the courtroom Morey offered words of encouragement and advice, explaining that about 550 juveniles in Durham are arrested annually, and that teenagers charged with a first crime are four times more likely than others to be charged again. “Every one of you has a dream,” she said. “Don’t let mistakes stop you.”
An assistant district attorney, assistant public defender and Durham Police investigator also addressed the teenagers.
After the hearing, Shakia, who had volunteered to participate in the skit, smiled in the hallway as passersby complemented her thespian skills. Next week she will graduate from high school.
“I feel good,” she said. “It’s great to have the opportunity to start over, and get things straight.” Perhaps appropriately, her T-shirt said, “Dreamer.”