Juvenile hearings open up In felony cases, minors could face public scrutiny

'A sound principle'

Md. courts wrestle with implications of new law

October 02, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Andrea F. Siegel and Dennis O'Brien contributed to this article.

Originally designed to protect troubled minors from public shame, juvenile courts throughout Maryland lifted their veil of secrecy yesterday under a new state law that requires hearings to be open when the minor is charged with a felony.

Just as public humiliation was used in the past to punish lawbreakers, state lawmakers, who passed the legislation during their last session, wanted to publicly expose juveniles who committed serious crimes -- including, for example, rapes, robberies, many assaults and thefts.

"I think it is a sound principle," said Del. Timothy D. Murphy of Baltimore, a member of the House of Delegates' Judiciary Committee, which played a key role in the legislation's passage. "No one ever anticipated the volume of violent juvenile offenders that we have now."

Courts throughout Maryland were wrestling yesterday with the implications of the new law, and opinion was by no means unanimous that it was a good thing.

Some court employees in Baltimore didn't know about the change. Defense attorneys and prosecutors were cautious about disclosing any information about their cases beyond what was presented at the public hearings.

Other court workers said they simply disagreed with the idea of publicly exposing the problems in these juveniles' lives.

"I understand that the public is concerned about some of the crimes these kids committed," said James Benton, head of the Juvenile Division for the Clerk of the Court of Baltimore. "But we who deal with these kids believe that most of this stuff should be kept confidential. Those we do rehabilitate go on to be good citizens."

The new law means that about 90 percent of the juvenile criminal cases in Baltimore will be open to the public, said Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of Baltimore Circuit Court. However, he also said that a judge or court master can close a hearing if there is a "good cause" finding.

In other parts of the state, court officials said they thought the new law would make little or no difference in how they operate.

"I think the only difference it is going to make to us is if we have to hear arguments about whether a hearing is to be open or closed," said Philip T. Caroom, one of three juvenile masters in Anne Arundel County.

In Baltimore County, Howard B. Merker, deputy state's attorney, said county juvenile courts have been open since at least 1975, when he began working there as a prosecutor. "With this law, I don't see any change in Baltimore County," he said.

During the General Assembly's debate on the issue, critics of the law argued that it would have little impact in deterring crime anywhere in Maryland. They described it as just "a feel-good bill."

Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin G. Welch, chief of the city's juvenile courts, said he fears the law's effects on victims as well as defendants.

"It could be very intimidating for very young victims, testifying in a courtroom of strangers," Welch said.

But in Baltimore yesterday, it seemed that court workers were more intimidated by the new law than those charged with crimes.

One 14-year-old was facing charges of armed robbery before Juvenile Master Patricia Brown in a room about half the size of school classroom. The boy was brought to the courtroom with his hands cuffed behind his back and shackles on his feet.

He was charged with pulling a gun on another student at Lake Clifton High School on Sept. 16 and demanding money.

"You are charged today with a very serious crime," Brown told the boy, who was arrested Tuesday.

The Sun does not publish the names of juvenile charged with crimes.

Listening to pleas from the boy's parents, Brown decided to recommend him for community detention, which allows him to go home instead of staying in jail while awaiting trial.

And while the charges were serious, this was where Brown, sitting in plain clothes with a jar of candy on her desk, made it clear that there's still a difference in how adults and juveniles are treated.

"You will be able to go to school only," she tells him. "Your behavior must be 'A-Number One."

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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