Proper terms needed in coverage of courts

Language: Media members all too often use inaccurate words to describe the handling of cases in Maryland's juvenile justice system.

August 22, 1999|By Martin P. Welch

ON FEB. 13, The Sun ran an article under the headline, "Boy pleads guilty to murder solicitation; Teen asked classmate to kill, Arundel court told."

The article was about a 15-year-old youth who offered a Glen Burnie teen-ager $100 to kill a classmate who annoyed him by asking too many questions in class. No one was hurt by the threat made on a bus outside Old Mill Senior High School. But the incident took an unexpected twist when the Glen Burnie boy tried to extort $500 from the teen who asked him to commit the crime.

Both youths were charged as juveniles in the incident. While the article did a good job of explaining the boys' misdeeds, it contained inaccuracies that contribute to the public's lack of understanding of the way the juvenile justice system works.

For example, the article said, "Police charged the Glen Burnie youth with delinquency for attempting to extort money from his classmate, and a Juvenile Court judge found the Glen Burnie teen guilty in October."

It is also inaccurate to say that the other boy pleaded guilty to solicitation to commit murder. After adjudication, a juvenile judge or master finds either "facts sustained" or "facts not sustained." "Guilty" and "not guilty" are terms associated with adult criminal matters; they are not used used in juvenile court.

The Sun is not alone in making such mistakes.

An article that appeared in the Washington Post on July 1 made a similar error. The article said, "A Montgomery County judge will decide today whether Michael Schoenfeld, 17, caused the deaths last summer of three people in a collision on East West Highway, but yesterday the judge acquitted him of three of the four charges in the case."

"Acquit" is a word that is inapplicable to juvenile proceedings. It would have been correct to say, "The facts were not sustained."

The news media are often inaccurate in other ways. Often I have read articles or listened to broadcasts that identify juveniles as "defendants" and other gross inaccuracies.

Despite the shift in the treatment of juvenile offenders, Maryland law still requires essential precepts, or "best practices." These precepts are:

* Juveniles charged with delinquent acts are "respondents" -- not "defendants."

* At an initial hearing, a juvenile enters a plea of "deny" or "admit," never "guilty" or "not guilty."

* The hearing to determine whether the juvenile committed the alleged offense is called an "adjudicatory hearing," not a "trial."

* If a court finds "facts sustained," it proceeds to "disposition," not "sentencing."

The basis for these long-standing practices is quite clear: Maryland's delinquency proceedings are not criminal, but civil.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the juvenile court in America. The first juvenile court was established in Cook County, Illinois, in 1899. Within the next decade, the first juvenile court in Maryland was established in Baltimore. Maryland youths who commit certain offenses have their cases handled in juvenile courts statewide.

In 1997, the Maryland legislature opened state juvenile courts to the public for cases that would be considered felonies if committed by adults. Because of the increasingly serious nature of offenses committed by young offenders and the opening of certain cases to the public, the press is reporting more on juvenile cases.

Without question, the nature of offenses committed by juveniles has changed dramatically, but issues of procedure, due process and treatment have not.

The pendulum, however, is slowly swinging away from "guidance, rehabilitation or treatment," with ominous new buzzwords such as "accountability" and "graduated sanctions."

The adherence to the "best practices" is critically important. Most children who appear in Maryland's juvenile courts have their cases adjudicated, receive treatment and become productive adults.

Our failure to adhere to these best practices can permanently hinder the ability of Maryland youths to grow out of the juvenile justice system, rather than help them avoid graduating to the adult criminal justice system.

A system of checks and balances permits Maryland judges, when appropriate, to "waive" chronic juvenile offenders to adult criminal court or to "transfer" the appropriate juveniles charged as adults to juvenile court. We must not upset the current balance and the distinctions between the adult criminal justice system, with its "taint of criminality," and the juvenile justice system, with its prospect of treatment and a brighter, more promising future for our youth.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Court of Appeals has established a public awareness program for Maryland's courts. Information and speakers are available to the public and media to help them understand the court process, including Maryland's juvenile court. Regrettably, the media seem to react to high-profile cases and issues, and run news accounts without understanding and accurately reporting the process.

I suggest that before the next juvenile delinquency case or juvenile justice issue, news professionals contact the Maryland Court Information Office so the quality of their reports will not be compromised by a lack of understanding of the process. A better-informed public might be the best 100th anniversary gift the Fourth Estate could offer.

"Acquit" is a word that is inapplicable to juvenile proceedings. It would be correct to say, "the facts were not sustained." And juveniles charged with delinquent acts are "respondents" -- not "defendants."

Martin P. Welch is a Baltimore Circuit Court Judge in charge of the Family Division/Juvenile.

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