Juvenile court cases may be open to public Proposed state bill unmasks offenders

February 14, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

In what would be a major policy change, court proceedings involving juveniles charged with serious offenses would be open to the public under legislation proposed by the Glendening administration and some lawmakers.

While critics say the move would do little to curb crime, proponents say it would focus needed public attention on Maryland's juvenile courts and direct the community's shame on young offenders, whose identities have been shielded.

"Too often, the criminal and the system itself could hide behind the cloak of confidentiality," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who helped develop the proposal. "I think the community should know what's going on. Shame has great value."

Thousands of cases involving juvenile offenders will be subject to public scrutiny if the legislation is approved by the General Assembly.

Currently in Maryland, juveniles accused of the most serious crimes, such as murder, can be charged as adults and tried in the Circuit Court. But most young offenders are referred to juvenile court.

Under present law, judges can open juvenile court proceedings if they deem it appropriate, but the practice is rare. The proposed legislation would require public hearings when youths are charged with offenses that would be felonies if committed by an adult -- including, for example, rapes, robberies, many assaults and thefts.

Del. Mary Louise Preis, a co-sponsor of the legislation along with Dels. Gilbert J. Genn and Dana Lee Dembrow, said the bill would send an important message to juveniles.

"If you're big enough to commit this kind of crime, you have to stand up and face the public with it," said Preis, a Harford County Democrat.

But advocates for juvenile offenders said opening court proceedings could end up scarring youngsters as they enter adulthood, with no major benefit.

"In some respects, it's a feel-good bill," said Rex Smith, a former head of juvenile services in Maryland and now a consultant on the issue. "All of us are in a tizzy about this violence. The question is, what do we really do about this? We're hard pressed to find the answer."

Added Susan Leviton, founder of Advocates for Children and Youth: "These are adolescents engaged in foolish, risky behavior. And the question is, should you be penalized for the rest of your life if you do one bad thing as a kid?"

But, Leviton added, she might support the proposal as an "experiment" for one reason -- the public attention might force changes in an over-burdened system.

"I think the fact that nobody knows what happens in juvenile court has allowed it to be the worst system possible," she said.

Package of initiatives

The open-court bill is part of a package of initiatives developed by the administration and highlighted by Townsend and other state officials at a news conference in Glen Burnie. The proposals include: A bill that would rewrite an introductory section of state juvenile justice law to put the focus as much on punishment and restitution to victims as on treatment of offenders.

While the bill is mostly symbolic, Townsend said it is important to set out in law just what the state's goals are in dealing with juvenile offenders.

A $1.5 million budget proposal for a "coerced abstinence" program in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore. Juvenile offenders with substance abuse problems would receive treatment, but would be punished and placed in residential programs if they continued to use drugs or alcohol.

A $500,000 "earn it" program in which juvenile offenders would work for businesses or community organizations, with the proceeds going to compensate the victims of their crimes.

While the administration has stressed the need for more get-tough measures, some advocates for juvenile offenders point out that Gov. Parris N. Glendening has scarcely increased spending on the Department of Juvenile Justice since taking office in 1995.

Budget fluctuates

A year ago, the department's budget included $106.2 million in state general funds. That dropped to $102 million this year, but the governor has proposed a budget of $107.8 million for next year.

In that time, the number of employees earmarked for the department has dropped from 1,457 to 1,421, while the caseload of youthful offenders has soared by several thousand, to 65,000 estimated for the coming budget year.

In the year that ended June 30, some 18,000 juveniles entering the system were charged with crimes that would be classified as felonies were they committed by adults, according to Department of Juvenile Justice figures.

Advocates said the administration is not committing enough money to the juvenile crime rate,concentrating instead on symbolic solutions such as the open-court bill.

"If they were really serious about restructuring, they would have to put in a major commitment of resources," Leviton said.

While the legislation under consideration would allow a juvenile court judge to close the proceedings for "good cause," Townsend said she could not envision when that would be appropriate.

States adopt policy

Several states have moved in recent years to open some aspect of their juvenile justice proceedings to the public.

But there have been no studies documenting any benefit from the move to open those systems, according to David Altschuler, a principal researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies,

"Whether or not this is going to produce a beneficial effect, we don't really know," Altschuler said.

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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