Students spend first day of school year in Court

September 05, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

To whom it may concern:

This note is to explain why Marcus was absent yesterday, the first day of school in the city of Baltimore. He was unfortunately detained with Tony and Nicole and Christine and Frank and Jamahl and Crystal and Gary and Nefiteria and David and Darnell and dozens of other children. When last seen yesterday morning, they were all in Room 125 of the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse. They were waiting for attorneys to represent them in Juvenile Court. All classroom activities will have to commence without them.

At the courthouse, there were maybe 50 kids in Room 125, some of them with parents, some with grandparents, and another 50 or so spilled into a gloomy hallway outside the room. The kids ranged from 5 or 6 years old to teen-agers. Most were charged with crimes. Some were alleged to be the victims of crime -- neglect or assault -- by their own parents.

"It makes your heart ache," State's attorney Patricia Jessamy was saying yesterday morning. "You see kids in shackles every morning. You know some of them have parents who are addicted. Some are years behind in reading skills. They become truant. Then they become curfew violators and go from there. The parents don't help. You wish you could take them all home, but you know you can't."

Yesterday, you wished you could take them all to the first day of school, but you couldn't. Jessamy sees such kids by the thousands, violators and victims. Last year in the city, 10,399 juveniles were arrested. (In Baltimore County, 8,595.) About 33 percent of the city's cases involved narcotics. Another 16 percent, stolen cars. Then there was assault and robbery, malicious destruction of property, possession of deadly weapons...

Sometimes, the system sputters from its own overload. On the first day of school yesterday, here was a woman named Karen, on a courthouse bench outside Room 125, who said she received a telephone call at work Tuesday.

"We have your son Brian in custody," said a woman from Juvenile Services.

"My son?" asked Karen. "Yes, we picked him up. From an assault case in May at his high school."

"In May?" asked Karen.

"Of 1995," the Juvenile Services woman said, checking her records. By all calculations, this means it's taken roughly 17 months to bring this case to trial. Only, as it turned out, Brian wasn't in custody at all. He was home, and had never been picked up. His caseworker, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen. And here was Brian's mother, with the names of some juvenile authorities scribbled on a little paper plate she held in her hand, sitting in this courthouse hallway and wondering, where should she go from here?

"Oh, it's a circus, ain't it?" a public defender chuckled, as he and several other court-appointed attorneys loudly called out a name, and then more names, hoping to connect with clients somewhere in the noisy room.

"Just stand here," another attorney said, as she prepared to call more names, "and listen to how we scream like fish mongers."

Which she did, with only sporadic success. Maybe her clients had gone to school instead of court. Maybe they forgot to show up. Maybe they'd forgotten the summons, forgotten the original charges.

"My great-grandchild," one lady said. "That's why I'm here."

She was sitting in a wheelchair in Room 125, and she pointed to a teen-age girl slouched with her boyfriend on a nearby bench.

"Why is she here?" the great-grandmother was asked.

"I don't really know. We got a summons."

The girl looked up now. She was chewing on a fingernail. Fighting, she said. There was fighting, and the police came, and now they had her here in court instead of school.

"Does it worry you," she was asked, "missing the first day of class?"

"I'll go tomorrow," she said, shrugging and commencing to gnaw on another fingernail.

Across the room, a woman walked in holding her little boy's hand. He looked about 6. The mother and son listened to the various names being hollered across the room. In the hallway, four teen-age boys, escorted by a policewoman, strode in wearing handcuffs and leg irons and were taken to the Male Detention Room. A boy maybe 16, his hair bleached from a summer in the sun, huddled with his attorney a few yards away. "They're making an offer," the attorney said. No one had to explain the subtleties of a plea bargain "offer" to the 16-year-old. Nor to many youngsters in this room, already veterans of the system.

"It's not a pretty picture," Marc Schindler, chairman of the juvenile law committee of the Baltimore Bar Association, said yesterday, standing outside Room 125. "There's been some sentiment about not having juvenile cases on the first day of school. For symbolic purposes, you know? Doesn't look like it's happening, does it?"

Behind him now, a public defender called out a name, and then another. No response. Now came another public defender, crying out another name. A teen-age girl with sparkles on her nails raised her hand. She should have been raising it in a classroom.

It was the first day of school yesterday in the city. Certain children had to be marked absent. This note to the teacher explains why.

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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