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 Court Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. ruled June 26 that local judges and masters in chancery, who handle the brunt of the juvenile cases, can open all juvenile hearings -- ranging from carjacking to vandalism -- to the public if they want to.
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 would begin routinely asking judges to open felony and misdemeanor juvenile proceedings within the next two weeks.
In a prepared 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.
The 88 percent increase in Howard's juvenile cases since 1993 is far higher than the 19 percent rate of increase in the rest of the state.
Masters must decide
McLendon may not have as many cases opened as she would like. The decision on misdemeanor cases and felony cases until October will be up to Howard's two masters in chancery -- who function as assistant judges. The two handle most of the 650 cases a year and have differing philosophies on whether their courtrooms should be open or closed.
Master Nancy L. Haslinger said opening the courts could mean that troubled children end up labeled as criminals in the community -- a label that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The juvenile system has long operated on a theory of rehabilitation and many of the delinquent children who end up in her court have psychiatric problems, she said.
"I believe the juvenile system exists because there is a fundamental belief that children are different from adults," Haslinger said.
Stuart O. Simms, secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Justice, echoed some of Haslinger's concerns. Simms testified before the legislature in favor of the new law concerning felony cases because of community concerns about violent youth. But he said yesterday he was worried that opening misdemeanor cases to the public could mean long-lasting negative affects for children charged with minor offenses.
Employers or community members could say " 'You're the kid who committed the fourth-degree sex offense against the kid in the coatroom,' which was nothing more than being stupid," Simms said.
But Master Bernard A. Raum said the community has a valid and reasonable interest in knowing what goes on in juvenile court. He said he likely will allow the public to attend most cases. He said he probably will request that the public leave during the disposition of a case, which may include reports on the child's psychiatric welfare.
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.
Richard J. Gilbert, Baltimore County's master for juvenile and domestic matters, said his courtroom has been open for nine years. The reason has little to do with rhetoric about accountability, he said.
Not a deterrent
Gilbert just wants people to be able to sit in the courtroom while other cases are going on so he can move through court faster. "Judicial economy and convenience," Gilbert said.
He said he has not seen the opening of the courts serve as a deterrent to crime.
"We've been doing it for years, and the numbers keep rising," Gilbert said.
Whether the move toward open court will deter crime, it may keep communities more informed about what happens to juvenile offenders and make them more confident in the justice system, supporters hope.
Peter M. Tabatsko, Carroll County's juvenile master, said victims of crime often had no idea what had happened to the offender. Misdemeanor and felony juvenile hearings were opened in Carroll in March.
"Now they'll get to see, 'Hey, this isn't a walk in the park,'" Tabatsko said.
Pub Date: 7/10/97