At the end of its first year the Wake Teen Diversion Program is showing promising results in keeping teens faced with school-related nonviolent misdemeanors out of the Wake County adult court system.
The Wake Teen Diversion program works with youth ages 16 to 18 by diverting them from adult criminal court to alternatives like Teen Court and mediation if they adhere to a diversion plan, which also addresses behavioral health needs. Students who successfully complete the program do not face criminal charges or have an arrest record. Once in the system, kids face increasing barriers to education, employment, and housing, ultimately hurting their chances to become a productive member of society, a problem known as the “school to prison pipeline.”
The program is administered by Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, the managed public behavioral healthcare for the citizens of Durham, Wake, Cumberland and Johnston counties. It is part of Alliance’s School-Based Care Coordination initiative, in which Care Coordinators use a “wraparound” model to improve student connections with the services they need to reduce the severity of their behavioral health symptoms. In turn, student absences are reduced and academic performance improves.
“The School-Based Care Coordination initiative is just one example of Alliance’s efforts to reach into our communities to the places where we can be proactive in identifying people who are at risk of the negative impact of behavioral health challenges,” said Dr. Beth Melcher, EVP of Alliance’s Care Management Division. “That allows us to intervene with treatment and support to help ensure they can avoid serious consequences and continue living satisfying lives.”
Alliance is the only North Carolina MCO with a pre-charge, school-based diversion program. During the 2016-17 school year the program received 143 referrals with 84 youth active or waiting for an intake in the program. To date 22 students have successfully completed the program. Included in that number are two kids who were able to keep their college scholarships by successfully completing their diversion plan.
North Carolina is the only state that treats teenagers as young as 16 as adults regardless of the severity of the offense. As a result, every year thousands of North Carolina youth enter the criminal system for first time, low-level offenses. Over 400 Wake County students were referred to the adult criminal justice system during the 2014-15 school year with students of color making up the majority of suspensions and arrests.
The Wake program has received widespread support from school, court, mental health, law enforcement and social justice leaders. “The biggest benefit of this diversion program, which is unique to the other diversion programs we have, is that these children undergo a thorough assessment to identify underlying issues that give rise to criminal behavior and allow those needs to be addressed,” said Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. “This should prevent further criminal activity by these individuals and play a big role in building them into successful members of our community.”
The diversion program is limited to school-based offenses and holds students accountable for their criminal conduct, identifying programs and services that give them the help they need. Students complete the diversion in six months without court contact, allowing them to chance to “make things right” without the negative effects a pending criminal case has on college and work opportunities.
The program also ensures minor criminal offenses committed at school are handled consistently across the county, providing consistency and predictability for school staff, students, and parents because they know what to expect when a case arises. School Resource Officers can refer cases to Alliance without leaving campus and avoid spending time in court.
“Court time is being used for more serious cases, instead of processing low level diversion cases,” said Katherine Edmiston, Wake County assistant district attorney. “Any increased efficiencies in court resources benefit all of us in Wake County.”
The Wake Teen Diversion Program is the result of a community collaborative between Alliance, Wake County Public Schools, and representatives from the Wake County Sheriff’s Office, the Raleigh and Cary Police Departments, Wake County Legal Aid and Wake County Public Defenders. Key support for the program came from Judge Vince Rozier, District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, Wake Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Brenda Elliott, and School Board member Christine Kusher.
“WCPSS is pleased to work with our various partners on this initiative,” said Elliott. “The district was seeking restorative ways to address low level criminal offenses that happened in schools and instituting a diversion program that provided support and not just consequences to students and their families just made good sense.”