Minors would be tried in open court under bill approved by legislature Backers say juvenile justice system needs public attention

April 04, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Minors charged with serious crimes would be tried in open court, not in private, under legislation approved yesterday in the General Assembly.

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

The measure would allow judges to close cases for "good cause," but proponents of the legislation said they expected that most proceedings would be open to the public.

"I think the public is demanding that these cases be open," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who sponsored the legislation. "The public is losing faith in the criminal justice system and the juvenile justice system."

Currently in Maryland, individuals not yet 18 who are accused of the most serious crimes, such as murder, can be charged as adults and tried in Circuit Court. But most young offenders are referred to juvenile court.

Under present law, judges can open juvenile court proceedings, but the practice is rare.

The legislation would open court 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.

Cases involving less serious offenses would still remain closed.

The bill now goes to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who is expected to sign it.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend pushed for the measure in part because it would cast society's disapproval on young lawbreakers, helping to deter future criminal activity.

"These offenders will know that the community is looking at them, and judging them and demanding that they behave better," Townsend said.

"It's also important for the public to have some faith in the system," Townsend added. "One of the reasons people have such little confidence in the juvenile courts is they don't know what's going on."

But critics of the measure say it will have little effect on crime.

Rex Smith, a former head of juvenile services in Maryland and now a consultant on the issue, called the legislation nothing more than "a feel-good bill."

"I don't think it will have any impact at all on delinquency rates or recidivism," Smith said.

"It's something that people think will have an impact on families, if they're held up to public scrutiny," Smith added. "But it doesn't do a thing, not one thing, to get at some of the causes for the delinquent acts themselves."

Indeed, Smith said, opening court hearings could cause problems for families trying to cope with a misbehaving child, and with other household problems such as drug abuse or domestic violence.

"All sorts of things happen in people's homes," Smith said. "If you hold all that up to public view, it doesn't do anybody any good."

Both Townsend and critics of the bill agree that opening the court proceedings will, at least, cast more attention on the juvenile system.

"Individuals interested in juvenile justice reform who see what's happening could demand changes," Townsend said.

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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