As school starts, courts move on and kids are lost

August 31, 1999|By Michael Olesker

IT WAS GLORIOUS morning across the greater Baltimore area yesterday, with children headed off to the first day of school, and it was the usual midnight in the basement of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, where one more round of boys in handcuffs and leg irons was marched into the juvenile lockup.

A couple of them struggled to hold up their pants with their elbows as they walked up steps leading to a big holding cell. Their belts had been taken away. Behind them, down a darkened corridor, benches were filled with more kids in trouble, and with those parents who'd bothered to accompany them, all of them spilled over from a big room, No. 125, that was filled with young people.

"Take off your shoes and socks," a Juvenile Services officer said in the lockup, "and turn out your pockets." His words echoed off the big cell's iron bars as about 15 kids walked in. Some of them wore the look of false bravado that many youngsters wear on the first, nervous day of school.

There was one kid, 14, maybe 5 feet 2, about 100 pounds, in a blue T-shirt and shorts. He'd been arrested for trying to strong-arm another kid out of a few bucks. He sat next to a much larger fellow, maybe 16, who had to be 6 feet 2 and big enough to pulverize anybody in the room. This one had his thumb in his mouth and did not remove it.

"Gimme your belt, young man," an officer said.

"My belt?" answered a skinny kid who'd held onto his. "My pants'll fall down."

"You won't be the first," the officer answered laconically.

With their handcuffs removed, the kids sprawled along several metal benches in the lockup. Some closed their eyes and tried withdrawing into sleep. They rattled their leg irons as they shifted. A couple of toilets were nearby, with no doors for privacy.

"I hope we get more than hamburger for lunch," one kid cried out. He'd been here before.

"You get what we get," an officer answered.

"How 'bout a deck of cards?" another kid hollered.

Maybe half a dozen guards moved about, shaking their heads at revolving-door defendants who'd been here before and felt the need to show off a little for the others.

"What time is it?" one fellow cried out.

"9: 30," an officer answered.

The kid noticed a clock on the wall. "No, it ain't," he said. "It's 9: 26. That's four minutes' difference."

The officer laughed. "First day of school," he said, "and you're getting technical." First day of school, it was. Across the state, more than 850,000 students return to public school classrooms this week. Not counting those in such places as the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse.

The school years begin and they end, but the courts go on without pause. The teachers will stand in their classrooms now and call the roll, and certain children, otherwise occupied, will not answer. Yesterday, such kids fell one day behind everybody else. Today, they fall one more day behind, and tomorrow one more, and soon catching up will be hopeless.

"We're looking for 27 in here today," a juvenile officer said yesterday. "That's light. That's a good Monday. I could live with that every day. 'Cause, you know, we've got lockups like this all over town. Stolen cars, drugs, assaults -- they're your top three. And we're getting kids in here now, 9 and 10 years old. We had a 9-year-old in here last week, this high."

He held his hand at waist level and said the kid looked pretty scared.

"Even the big ones get scared," he said. "We take 'em to court, they cry, we wipe their face. They're pretty afraid. But then they come back. I've seen 'em grow up, some of 'em. They start here, and they go to the adult system. Yeah, we watch 'em grow up."

"They get in here and learn another trick," a second officer said. "They think they know how to wire a car, but then they get here and somebody tells 'em how you really do it. And the kids figure the system's just gonna tap 'em on the shoulder a few times before it gets serious."

On the radio yesterday morning, one of the public school superintendents talked of the joys of the first day of school. He encouraged parents to walk with their children. The thought was lovely but meant nothing in the big holding cell.

"They get to 13 or 14," one officer said, "and their parents don't want to be bothered."

"Naw," a second agreed, "they don't even talk on the phone to the parents for months at a time, until they get locked up. And then they gotta call 'em. The parents come into the courtroom, and the kids are crying, so they get a break. `Go home with your parents,' they're told. But the parents don't want to take 'em home, and then the kids cuss 'em out right there in the courtroom.

"And then," this officer said sadly, "you get some kids, long as they get three hots and a cot, they're fine."

Three hots and a cot: three meals and a place to sleep. Not so bad, to some.

So it went yesterday morning, where it was the glorious first day of school, and midnight in the juvenile lockup.

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