Juveniles facing criminal charges in Howard County could find themselves tried in public as soon as the end of the month, a change designed to lower the wall of confidentiality that has shielded young offenders.
Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. ruled June 26 that local judges and masters in chancery, who handle the brunt of the juvenile cases, may open all juvenile hearings -- ranging from carjacking to vandalism -- to the public if they choose.
In October, a new state law takes effect that requires judges to open all felony cases -- but not misdemeanor cases -- to the public unless they demonstrate good cause to have a case closed. Several Maryland counties have opened their juvenile courts.
Kane's move -- at the request of Howard State's Attorney Marna McLendon -- mirrors decisions across Maryland and the country challenging the notion that juvenile offenders should be protected from public shame. Now, as juvenile crime continues to rise, legislators, prosecutors and the public are pushing for young criminals to be held accountable.
McLendon said her office will begin routinely asking judges to open felony and misdemeanor juvenile proceedings within the next two weeks.
In a written statement, McLendon said that open courts would allow victims and the public to see what goes on in Howard's juvenile courtroom.
"Many children believe that juvenile court is a joke and that nothing happens to juvenile offenders," McLendon wrote. "Our office is doing everything possible to change that impression and have juveniles understand the consequences of their acts."
Though the overall crime rate in suburban Howard remains relatively low, juvenile crime has skyrocketed. The number of teen-agers referred to the local Department of Juvenile Justice has almost doubled in the past four years.
Though the new state law will formalize the opening of certain juvenile cases, many jurisdictions have opened juvenile courts. In the metropolitan area, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties have open courts.
Baltimore City's juvenile courts are closed.
Pub Date: 7/10/97