Juvenile court opens at night

Late hours offered to accommodate offenders, parents

February 22, 2000|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

The ninth-grader, dressed in a black pantsuit, dabbed at her eyes, and her parents fidgeted beside her. Her lawyer spoke about her good grades. The prosecutor read aloud a statement describing her sale of pills to a schoolmate.

"You've shattered the trust your parents have had in you," said Peter M. Tabatsko, Carroll County's juvenile master, who was about to sentence the first offender to appear in the state's first session of juvenile night court. "I trust this was an aberration."

The girl was one of a dozen young suspected offenders to go to the courthouse in Westminster Thursday night. The session was designed to allow young people to appear in court without missing school, and to allow parents and witnesses to attend without missing work.

Tabatsko, following the recommendation of a county juvenile counselor, sentenced the ninth-grader to probation, including random drug testing, 100 hours of community service and mandatory counseling that might continue until she turns 21. He warned the girl that she would be sent to a detention facility if she failed to comply.

A 16-year-old boy explained why he had missed a court date. Tabatsko responded by imposing a 9 p.m. curfew. A 16-year-old girl on probation for missing school tried to explain why she had been late for school 15 times. She also was given a curfew.

"I want you in school, all day and every day," Tabatsko said.

Night court seemed especially fitting for the truancy cases, such as one involving a ninth-grade girl who had missed 48 of the first 55 school days at Westminster High School. She said drug dealers had threatened her.

Tabatsko ordered her to attend classes or be placed in a juvenile center where school attendance is mandatory, and ordered her to report to a school counselor.

"We're going to see you get an education," he said.

Mixed reactions

On the first night, parents' reactions were mixed. "I'd rather take the time off than work all day and come here feeling tired," said one father, whose seventh-grade daughter was charged with assault for striking another girl in the face. "But I definitely wanted to be here."

Another father listened to the proceedings against his son, who was accused of violating a court-imposed 9 p.m. curfew. "I'd rather not be here at all," said the man, an insulation contractor. "I had a job in Bel Air and had to shut down two hours early to get here by 6 p.m."

The night sessions have been scheduled for once a month during the next five months.

After hearing about the pilot program in Carroll, authorities in other state jurisdictions have asked Tabatsko to let them know how the night sessions work, he said.

More young offenders

According to state juvenile justice officials, authorities referred 1,285 young offenders in Carroll County to counselors during the 12 months ending in June, an 8 percent increase over the previous year.

But most of those cases were handled without the juvenile attending court. Carroll prosecutors brought 411 juvenile cases last year, three fewer than the year before. "If a child breaks a window, for example, and the main issue comes down to making restitution, the case likely will be resolved at intake without being forwarded to court before a juvenile master," said Assistant State's Attorney Brian Bowersox.

Most of the cases recommended for prosecution involved serious crime, such as robbery and assault, or situations in which the offender balked at making restitution.

Making good

One hearing at night court involved a 15-year-old girl. She had destroyed a neighbor's mailbox, but her parents had refused to pay the $190 to replace it and some surrounding flowers. Their daughter, they complained, had been the only member of a group of girls to be held responsible; they also complained that the bill seemed too high.

"Hello, what am I missing here?" Tabatsko said. "We have a criminal act and a victim. If someone destroys someone else's property, isn't it fair to make good on the damage?

"I'll render a decision in writing. You can appeal it, or you can sue the others you believe were involved."

Complex issues

In 11 years as the county's juvenile master, Tabatsko has seen the number of juvenile hearings increase by 90 percent. "But the X-factor is the complexity of what we are seeing," he said. "Eleven years ago, we didn't see heroin cases. We didn't have teen-age pedophiles coming into court, and now we are seeing more dysfunctional families with more complex issues to resolve."

Of the cases heard Thursday night, the most serious involved the 14-year-old girl in the black pantsuit. A 15-year-old boy had given her tablets of ibuprofen, the prosecutor said, and she had sold them, claiming the white tablets were "just like cocaine." Such a claim could lead the buyers to experiment with harder drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, the prosecutor said.

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