Juvenile court system faulted Report blames much city crime on system's failures.

February 03, 1992|By Joan Jacobson

Baltimore's juvenile court system is so inept that arrest warrants go unserved, violence breaks out in courtrooms and teen-agers leave the courthouse without a hearing because no one can figure out why they came.

Furthermore, a city bar association committee concludes in a new report that "much of the dramatic street crimes, killings and drug trafficking in Baltimore City are a direct result of the failures of the juvenile justice system and the low priority placed upon it by our state and local officials and citizens."

The committee, headed by George L. Russell Jr., a city lawyer and former city solicitor and Supreme Bench (now Circuit Court) judge, has been studying the drug crisis and the criminal justice system.

In a December 1990 report, Mr. Russell's bar committee made 23 recommendations concerning the city's criminal justice system. The committee's recommendation to turn the City Jail over to state government was taken up by the General Assembly, and the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services began running the City Jail last year.

As a result of findings that led to this new report, Mr. Russell said he already has asked Gov. William Donald Schaefer to pay for two new juvenile court judges to handle the growing number of drug-related arrests of children.

Mr. Russell noted that there has been only one juvenile court judge in Baltimore since World War II, yet in 1991, 20 percent of all arrests in the city were of juveniles.

The bar association also is recommending that a city-wide coalition be formed to coordinate both public and private funds against drug use, bringing together businesses, churches, schools, the media, health-care facilities, and criminal justice agencies.

The juvenile justice system's inability to prevent youngsters from becoming adult criminals has been a major concern among juvenile justice advocates for more than two decades.

Mr. Russell's committee finds a juvenile court system under even more pressure because so many youngsters are arrested for drug-related crimes.

The city's underfunded system is severely stressed from a lack of personnel and computers to handle the 30,864 hearings it conducted last year, the committee found.

Arrests of juveniles on drug charges increased by 29 percent -- to 1,823 -- for the first 11 months of 1991, over the same period in 1990. Some 68 percent of those cases were for the distribution of drugs.

In researching its report, the bar committee discovered the juvenile court system had two file cabinets that contained an unknown number of juvenile arrest warrants that never have been served.

Juveniles who should be in detention centers are often sent home because the centers are filled, the committee said.

The committee also found juvenile court is becoming a dangerous place. The committee's report noted three dozen incidents of violence in juvenile hearing rooms, where there are no security guards or panic buttons.

What was especially alarming to the committee was the estimate by state correctional officials that 90 percent of the adults in the Maryland prison system got their start as criminals in the juvenile justice system.

Nevertheless, proposed budget cuts to the Department of Juvenile Services would cut staff to 1970 levels.

"We are creating a lost generation," said Mr. Russell yesterday.

"We have children reporting to court not knowing where to report and what to do, and no one understands why they are there. Treatment is non-existent or inadequate.

"There's no more desperate need for the state to address other than this juvenile court system in Baltimore City," he said.

Mr. Russell would not say how Governor Schaefer reacted in a private session to his request for two more judges. But Mr. Russell said he also suggested abolishing the state prosecutor's office and transferring about $700,000 to Baltimore's juvenile court system.

Mr. Russell also said that two new judgeships would need the approval of Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy.

Baltimore's court system is paid for by city government, but Mr. Russell noted the city -- already strapped by a budget deficit -- has no money to increase support for the courts.

Mr. Schaefer's press secretary could not be reached for comment yesterday on the bar association's proposal.

David S. Iannucci, the governor's chief legislative officer, said he was not privy to the governor's conversation with Mr. Russell.

But he said, "I've never heard of that proposal," referring to abolishment of the state prosecutor's office. The state prosecutor investigates elected officials for violations of election and ethics laws, and other forms of misconduct in office. Mr. Russell suggested that the attorney general's office could take over those duties.

While the juvenile court has only one judge, the system has seven court masters to hear juvenile cases. But they are allowed to hear only certain types of cases, and their professional ability has been questioned by some of the people interviewed by the bar association committee.

The committee noted that the use of masters instead of judges shows how little importance the government has placed on juvenile delinquency.

"Even parking tickets in Baltimore City are given greater respect," the committee quoted an unnamed judge as saying.

Budget cuts proposed for the city's Circuit Court may result in the laying off of four to six juvenile masters.

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