Day in Juvenile Court Reveals Challenges for All Parties

This is one in a series of articles where we look at Maryland's juvenile justice system


BALTIMORE (May 30, 2011) — It's 9:30 a.m. at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, and the hallways are crowded with people. Children are crying. Attorneys are yelling out names of their clients. Teenagers are leaning against the walls, waiting for their turn in the courtroom. A woman asks if anyone has a Motrin.

They're here for juvenile court hearings or for child welfare cases—custody hearings, foster care and abandonment issues. These people are all gathered at the $62 million center on 300 North Gay Street, designed to bring all needed services for juveniles under one roof.

A day in the juvenile courtrooms offers a sample of some of the everyday challenges faced by those in the system—teenagers without family support, stubborn juveniles who won't accept help—as well as a look at kids who seem to have gotten back on track.

In fiscal 2010, 4,699 cases were prepared and filed against juveniles in Baltimore—a caseload that makes up a quarter of the juvenile cases in the state, according to the Department of Juvenile Services.

A snapshot of a day in juvenile court may seem similar to the adult system, but a closer look reveals the differences. The adult and juvenile court systems grow out of different legal theories.

The juvenile system serves youths 18 and under with the goal of rehabilitation, not punishment. For that reason, most of the court's terminology is different from the language in adult courts. Juveniles are "adjudicated," not "found guilty." They commit "delinquent acts," not "crimes."

The records in these cases are sealed to protect youths who may have made some immature mistakes and may never again have any legal problems.

Three judges and 11 masters—court officials who perform similar functions to judges and who are treated with the same respect—work out of small courtrooms on the third floor of the building.

The crowded halls include many people wearing suits—public defenders, private attorneys and prosecutors. The public defenders carry pink and orange folders, pink for juvenile justice cases and orange for welfare cases.


One Friday morning this spring, Master Dawn Jones enters her courtroom and sits down at her bench, which is adorned with a plant and a statue of an eagle with a sign that reads, "Believe."

She goes through several cases in her morning docket, looking for positive things to say to each young person who comes before her.

"I may scream and yell at the kid," she says, after the courtroom has cleared, "but in the back of my mind, I think, 'Is there anything I can say and can do to make the kids think there's a better way?'"

Jones acts as a coach: She acknowledges missteps and encourages progress.

A tall, thin 17-year-old is the first before Jones, a young man arriving for a probation review. Jones says she likes to schedule court updates instead of relying on paper progress reports because she wants to see the juveniles.

"He's clearly doing very well," the young man's public defender says. "Mom is proud of how he's doing."

"I'm going to try to do better in school," the teenager says. His mother adds that he has been taking CPR classes to get a summer job with Baltimore City Aquatics.

"Why didn't you tell me that?" Jones asks. "You need to learn how to toot your own horn."

There's less optimism in another case: Both the prosecutor and the lawyer for an 18-year-old woman agree that she does not seem to be helped by the programs the Department of Juvenile Services offers her.

"You're saying give up on her?" Jones asks.

"She's not doing anything," the public defender responds. "Our conclusion is to close this case to non-productiveness."

But Jones doesn't want to give up, even after learning of a new drug charge brought against the teenager. Jones asks the young woman if she wants to speak. She remains silent, slouching in her chair.

"You all are asking me to reward her and just let her go," Jones says, raising her voice as she goes. "I can't do that. You have to step up to the plate and woman up. I'm not going to close this case."


In another courtroom after lunch, Master Claudette Brown sits at her bench waiting for the "specials," juveniles who were arrested the night before.

Two young men appear before her. She gives each one community detention, a sentence similar to house arrest but one that allows for the juveniles to attend school and church.

Another 18-year-old sitting at the public defender's table begins to talk out loud to himself. Brown has not addressed him yet.

The young man complains about being incarcerated. "I'm tired of being in detention," he says to no one in particular.

He was transferred from adult court, and his mother is sitting in Brown's courtroom. The public defender, prosecutor and master confer at the master's bench and static noise is sent through the courtroom's speakers to cover the conversation. They invite the mother up.

Brown decides the boy cannot go home or stay at the detention center. He will be sent to another juvenile center, one that offers a program that may help him.

The next teenager enters the courtroom in handcuffs. He sits next to the public defender.

Brown asks, as she does with every case, for updated contact information for a family member.

But the young man, who has been in the detention center for two days, doesn't have any relatives in court.

"I'm concerned where his family is," Brown says. "Does he have friends that might know?"

The young man shrugs no.

The public defender asks that the youth be sent to a shelter for juveniles because the young man has no one to go home to. Brown presses harder to find some family. She asks him about aunts, uncles, grandparents. He shrugs no.

The public defender picks up her cell phone and, from the courtroom, calls all the cell phone numbers she tried earlier that morning in an effort to find relatives. Those numbers don't work, but she tries another number and reaches the young man's mentor. The mentor gives another number to try. The public defender calls and someone answers.

"Did y'all know he was detained?" she asks. "Is anyone coming to court for him?"

A hearing is set for the next Monday. The young man is escorted back to detention.


In Master Bradley Bailey's courtroom, a sullen 17-year-old boy is brought in wearing a white T-shirt and blue pants, the basics worn by juveniles detained in the building. His hands and feet are cuffed together.

The juvenile, charged with aggravated assault, has been in custody for six months. His case was originally waived to the adult court system and transferred back to the juvenile system.

Today, he gets his chance for an adjudication, or trial, in juvenile court.

The prosecutor calls the victim in the case to the stand. She asks if he remembers "something unusual" happening on the day in question. He says yes, "I was stabbed."

The 17-year-old victim, wearing a tie with a hooded sweater and jeans, testifies that he had just walked his girlfriend home when the defendant approached him, and the two boys got into a fight.

The defendant keeps his head down during the proceedings and sways back and forth in his chair. He turns around a few times to look at his family. He decides not to testify.

"I don't think that they proved beyond a reasonable doubt that there was intent to cause serious bodily injury," his public defender says.

The prosecutor disagrees: "Clearly, stabbing someone, not once, but twice—there is your intent."

Bailey agrees. He finds "facts sustained" on a first-degree assault charge and on a carrying-a-deadly-weapon charge.

"Your math grade is a B," Bailey tells the boy. "I expect to see a better progress report next time."

Later that afternoon, an 18-year-old appears before Bailey. The young man was arrested after missing a violation-of-probation hearing.

He says he didn't know he had a hearing coming up because he stopped receiving mail when he was thrown out of his cousin's home three months earlier.

His mother, who had asked the Department of Juvenile Services to deal with him, repeatedly voices her opinion. She says she will allow her son to live with her as long as he goes to therapy and school, takes his medications and stays off drugs.

The juvenile has become a father since his last time in the courtroom.

"I have a daughter now," the teenager says. "I want to be there for her."

He is placed on community detention and can go home with his mother. Bailey says that is appropriate because she has shown a strong commitment improving her son's behavior.

He adds that the young man needs to work to gain the skills it will take to be a good father.

"We want to focus on you," Bailey says.

Just after 5 p.m., the once-hectic hallways outside of the courtrooms are empty. The afternoon dockets are complete. Any juveniles who are arrested in the meantime will be seen when the courts reopen.

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