Stiffer penalties sought for youths Juvenile master says handling of young drug offenders works

March 02, 1998|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

Concerned about three recent drug overdose deaths, including that of a 15-year-old Westminster High School student, a group of Carroll County residents has begun clamoring for stiffer penalties against juvenile drug offenders.

The concern has spurred community meetings with state and local police, educators, the state's attorney's office and Junction Inc., a Westminster-based drug abuse treatment and prevention center.

Activists who have formed Residents Against Drugs (RAD), a citizen organization that lobbied Wednesday in Annapolis for tougher drug laws, complain that police aren't doing enough to keep drugs out of the county and that, too often, juvenile offenders are given a slap on the wrist and allowed to return to school.

Although prohibited from discussing individual cases, Peter M. Tabatsko, the county's juvenile master, disputes that notion.

Tabatsko, 49, has been presiding over Carroll's juvenile cases for nine years. Until legislative changes last year made juvenile hearings public, he labored mostly in anonymity, except among the young offenders, their families, lawyers, victims and juvenile services workers who came to his small courtroom in the historic Westminster courthouse.

"A juvenile offender must be held accountable to society and to the victim," Tabatsko says.

According to statistics provided by Barbara Davis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Juvenile Justice, more than 58,000 juvenile criminal cases were handled statewide in fiscal 1996.

Carroll's juvenile authorities handled 1,221 cases during the same period, about 100 more than in each of the two previous fiscal years.

Davis said 771, or 63 percent, of those cases were closed or disapproved at intake, meaning either the evidence was insufficient or the matter was resolved with parents or caregivers who promised closer supervision.

Twenty-six percent of Carroll's juvenile cases were forwarded to the juvenile court in fiscal 1996. The remaining 11 percent were settled through negotiations before a hearing occurred.

Rehabilitation, public safety and accountability are the watchwords of the "Restorative Justice Model," which state officials put into effect last year, Tabatsko said.

Until about 10 years ago, attention was mainly directed toward rehabilitation, but legislators began to modify the system in recent years. Rehabilitation was important, but so was the safety of society, Tabatsko said.

In January, after Liam O'Hara, 15, was found dead of a drug overdose at his Westminster home, three juveniles were arrested in connection with the boy's death.

Prosecutors are seeking to charge two of them as adults, so their juvenile hearings have been postponed.

Members of RAD were outraged that two of the juveniles, a girl and a boy, were placed on electronic detention and permitted to return to school. The third youth was ordered held at a juvenile lTC detention facility.

Without addressing that case specifically, Tabatsko explained that a detention hearing is similar to a bail hearing. A juvenile master must determine whether a defendant is a threat to public safety, or himself or herself, and if the child is likely to show up for an adjudication hearing, which is similar to a court trial in the adult court system.

A juvenile master may decide to have a young offender held at a juvenile detention facility until a hearing within 30 days or the offender may be released to parents, or elect some form of monitoring.

"Detention cannot exceed 30 days between an arrest and the adjudication hearing," Tabatsko said.

At a juvenile hearing, a master hears testimony, weighs evidence and determines what will happen to a young offender.

Tabatsko said he carefully considers the recommendations of juvenile services representatives who, by the time of the hearing, have conducted interviews, investigated family circumstances and written a report.

A juvenile master has numerous options available. He can order an offender to go to a youth camp, a forestry camp, a boot camp or other facilities that offer specific rehabilitative programs.

These sentencings are recommended by lawyers for the defendant or by juvenile services, Tabatsko said.

If accepted, such orders are indefinite, he said. A 17-year-old may remain in a program until he or she is 21 or may be recommended for release in a much shorter period.

Unless a felony offense has been committed, first-time offenders are often placed on probation with strict conditions. Probationers also may be given special conditions of probation and must, where applicable, pay restitution.

Special conditions could include completing volunteer community service.

While 200 hours of community service may be the norm, Tabatsko said he has ordered as many as 1,000 hours for youthful offenders.

Tabatsko said he orders community service for about 98 percent of the juvenile offenders that come into his courtroom.

Ken Huff of the county's community services agency, which oversees placement and monitoring of young offenders, said juveniles ordered to perform community service must do so for nonprofit organizations such as the American Red Cross, the Heart Association, Goodwill or the county recycling center.

For those offenders who fail to complete court-ordered community service, "we look to remove them from the community, either in detention or in one of the programs," Tabatsko said.

Ninety-five percent of criminal offenders who appear in his court never come back, Tabatsko said.

"Almost no one comes twice," he said. "They either come once, or they keep coming back, over and over."

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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