Harmless antidote to cynicism Juvenile felony hearings: Their value lies in bolstering waning confidence in justice system.

October 04, 1997

THE MODEST VALUE of the new state law opening to the public court hearings for juveniles charged with felonies has nothing to do with deterring offenders. It should not be misconstrued as an indictment of the confidentiality that still suffuses our juvenile justice system.

There has always been sound reason for shielding juveniles who run up against the law from public view.

Juvenile justice revolves around rehabilitation; no civilized society believes in simply locking up children and tossing away the key. Privacy facilitates rehabilitative efforts. Usually society is better served by not identifying juvenile offenders.

Moreover, our sense of fairness says the mistakes of childhood should not, in most cases, be turned into an indelible stain.

Still, there is no escaping the fact that juvenile crime, which used to consist predominantly of property crimes like vandalism, has grown more violent (although the number of crimes is dropping). There is, understandably, an increased clamor for accountability from the public, whose confidence in the justice system in general is waning.

It matters little that the public's perception of criminal justice is usually based more on media coverage of a few exceptional cases in court than on the day-to-day workings of the state's judicial system. Public cynicism translates into unwillingness to provide acequate resources for an overburdened state court system.

The new state law is probably useless for the purpose advertised by its supporters in the hallways of Annapolis -- to "shame" kids straight.

Those who work with such kids predict many of them will be unaffected by the change. Most cases will continue to attract little interest.

Baltimore County juvenile court hearings have been open for years and are rarely packed with spectators.

But the law does, in a small way, inspire public confidence by allowing people to see the system at work during serious cases in which they have an interest.

That is why the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice endorsed it. The agency found that refusing to let the community know anything about, say, a controversial juvenile rape case, damages the public trust more than it helps the accused.

When people sit in a courtroom, witness the complexity of the legal and social issues and understand the facts on which judgments are based, they become more aware of the link between juvenile crime prevention and health, education and welfare.

This law is far from revolutionary. All juvenile files and misdemeanor hearings remain sealed. Judges may close hearings, a necessary option for the sake of the victims, many of whom are children and could be frightened by a room full of strangers.

We see no sign that the new "open hearings" law will erode the juvenile court's focus on rehabilitation. It is merely a harmless antidote to public distrust.

Pub Date: 10/04/97

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