A place for children Juvenile court: Creating a better environment for those awaiting trial.

February 02, 1996

MANY CHILDREN end up in juvenile court through no fault of their own. It's a dismal place. Closed hearings are held in a series of rooms on the first floor of the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse. The corridor provides the only waiting area. Children being fought over in custody battles play on the floor while public defenders who seem too busy to care discuss plea options with teen-agers trying to act tough as they begin careers as felons.

But some lawyers do care; so do the judges. A group of them has been working to transform an old office in the courthouse into a more suitable waiting room for children. They are painting it in bright, attractive colors and will fill it with donated children's books and toys. A "paint-in" Wednesday was sponsored by the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association, which is holding its winter meeting in Baltimore. The renovation itself is a project of the Baltimore Circuit Court, the Baltimore City Bar and the Alliance of Black Women Attorneys. They should all be commended.

No one knows when a proposed juvenile justice center will be built. But a promise by state juvenile services secretary Stuart O. Simms to provide jobs for East Baltimore residents seems to have ended that neighborhood's opposition to the facility. The resistance was understandable. Already in East Baltimore are the maximum-security State Penitentiary, the "Supermax" lock-up for extremely violent criminals, two pre-release units, the city detention center and the new central booking facility.

But, even with the new paint and toys, the city desperately needs a replacement for the Mitchell Courthouse rooms where juvenile cases are handled now. The proposed $42 million juvenile justice center will include 144 beds for youths awaiting trial, courtrooms for juvenile masters, offices for public defenders and state prosecutors as well as rooms that could be used for mentoring programs and neighborhood meetings. Such a facility would be more than just another lock-up. It would be a place where effective intervention could prevent a young person from becoming an adult criminal.

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