Many kids in Mecklenburg County who get in trouble, say at school or the mall, end up speaking with Cara Evans-Patterson. She’s in charge of CMPD’s youth diversion program. It was created in 2013 to stop kids from ending up in the court system. Since then, more than 3,800 students have been referred to the program, many by school resource officers.
Evans Patterson will be part of a Civics 101 discussion tonight at the Gantt Center on what’s called the cradle-to-prison pipeline. It starts at 6:30 p.m. She spoke with WFAE’s Lisa Worf about the disproportionate number of youth of color she sees and the program’s success at keeping them out of the court system. Evans-Patterson points out juvenile arrests overall in Charlotte are down 20 percent since the program began.
Lisa Worf: What are you seeing as far as what kids are doing to get in here? What kind of misdemeanors are we talking about?
Cara Evans-Patterson: Mostly lower level misdemeanors. Most of them are stealing, fighting, smoking, and drinking. Those are some of the main types of charges that we encounter and we've created programs for those. We have a substance class, a conflict class, a theft class. We actually have an academic class in case they did get into some lower level misdemeanor, but they have academic problems and we can place them and get them some extra academic services.
Worf: You’re getting 6-year-olds as well here?
Evans-Patterson: We do. We sometimes get 6-year-olds and some of those are weapon law violations where sometimes kids are bringing pocket knives or things to school for show-and-tell that's against school policy or in case they get into a fight or in case they push over the teacher’s computers and they throw or hit somebody. So we might get some instances like that. We don't come in here and we don't scold kids, make them feel like they're just horrible and bad. That's not the purpose of this program at all. We talk to them and say, “OK, what do you think you did wrong?” And they can articulate that. If they can't, then we have a conversation about it and then they understand normally at the end of the conversation, this is not the type of behavior that I want to have. Each 6-year-old situation is different. We handle all of them with care because we don't want any person coming out of this intake feeling like they’re a horrible person, because they’re not. They just made a poor decision and we're here to help.
Worf: Most of the kids you see are more in the 15-, 16-year-old range then?
Evans-Patterson: Correct. Most of our population is … 14- and 15-year olds. The 16- and 17-year-olds, which we're preventing from having that adult arrest, that's about 20 percent of our population.
Worf: How are those conversations different?
Evans-Patterson: Sixteen- and 17-year-olds, we definitely let them know, 'Look, you could have had an adult arrest that would have gone on applications for college, for jobs.' We kind of lay it down hard on those kids, let them know that this officer did you a big favor of not having an adult arrest on your record. So they definitely complete the program at higher rates and they definitely don't re-offend as much because they're just fearful of knowing that they were really close to having an adult record.
Worf: Do these lessons seem to soak into students?
Evans-Patterson: So we track recidivism to see if kids get in trouble and we're right around 90 percent of the kids don't re-offend. So I think that's a pretty successful program as far as percentages go.