Some teenagers suspected of illegal behavior in Orange County may soon be sent through a new program that will keep them out of the adult criminal justice system.

“What it is,” explains local Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman, “is a program to divert misdemeanor charges against 16 and 17 year olds, to have an intervention of sorts using some court personnel but without the formality of a formal charge and/or arrest.”

The new program opens up an avenue outside of the adult criminal justice system for 16 and 17-year-old offenders in certain situations. North Carolina is one of two states in the country, along with New York, that currently treats anyone 16 years old or older who is arrested as an adult.

“In virtually every other state, if someone is under the age of 18 when they are accused of committing an offense,” Nieman said, “then they are handled by that state’s juvenile system.”

Nieman said this program will only bring in cases for 16 and 17 year olds who are suspected of misdemeanors that do not involve any sexual allegation.

“The punishment has a different goal,” Nieman said. “It’s focused more on rehabilitation and education than on traditional punitive punishment, and it’s more geared toward young people as opposed to the adult system.

“And, especially in our state and I’m pretty sure in most other states, that record is at some point purged and not available to the general public for review.”

Nieman says the goal is to avoid the permanency of a record that follows those who are processed as teenagers in the adult system.

“If a young person who is charged with a crime is allowed an opportunity to avoid the immediate consequences of being arrested and of being formally charged,” Nieman said, “I think there can be an effect on that person as not seeing the system as their enemy and they might not see law enforcement as their enemy.”

Nieman says this can benefit society as a whole by allowing those who may have entered the adult criminal justice system to follow a path to education and employment.

“You get the one charge, that charge prevents you from professional and school opportunities, and then that has a tendency to discourage success along legal tracks and, in effect, encourage success along illegal tracks,” Nieman said.

He added that his words should not be seen as condoning illegal behavior but that it can make it more difficult to follow standard avenues to success with any kind of charge, even as a teenager.

“The harder that we make it for people to succeed along legal tracks,” Nieman said, “it does bring in the temptation to find a way to find happiness or success in illegal ways.”

He says there is still a mechanism that brings those charged with other offenses, including violent crimes and felonies, into the adult system.

“If a 17 year old committed a serious, violent felony for example, the state can move to have that case tried as an adult,” Nieman said. “Frankly we can still do that now with people who are 15 and younger. If a 15 year old, 14 year old or younger commits a serious offense, there’s a process to have that case tried as an adult.

“It happens far less often in North Carolina, quite frankly, because our juvenile age is so low.”

Nieman says that those who are diverted through the system will be put through a 90-day program – which includes community service and possibly drug and alcohol counseling, depending on the charges.

Nieman says this program would not have happened without the support of local law enforcement and Caitlin Fehagen, who will serve as the MDP Coordinator and Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Manager.

The program began taking referrals on Friday.