ANNAPOLIS – County officials across Maryland say a new law opening some juvenile court proceedings to the public will have little effect on them, because they already try juveniles in open court as long as the case does not contain sensitive material.
The General Assembly passed legislation last session encouraging judges to open their courtrooms if a juvenile has committed an act that would be a felony in adult court. However, judges still may close a case “for good cause shown” if they feel testimony or the case itself contains sensitive material.
The law took effect Wednesday, with little fanfare or notice.
“This law is a strong step in enhancing our philosophy in holding youth accountable for their behavior while at the same time increasing public awareness,” said Marsha Koger, spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Justice.
But in Prince George’s County, Circuit Judge Michele D. Hotten, who coordinates the juvenile division, said hearings traditionally have been open to demonstrate “how juvenile justice really works” and the strong effort made to rehabilitate troubled youth.
On the Eastern Shore, Caroline County State’s Attorney Christian J. Jensen said he had never seen a juvenile session closed in 13 years. “I don’t see that there’s going to be any change of pace,” he added.
And in Carroll County, Master Peter M. Tabatsko said juvenile proceedings also have been open to the public and that the new law “won’t have much of an effect on the way we do things.”
Frederick County Judge Herbert L. Rollins said open juvenile courts were the rule there, as well.
“We’ve always done it — from day one,” he said. “When I came on here we had [an open court policy] and I never even thought to bring up the question because it was so routine.”
The exception was Baltimore City, which historically has kept a tight lid on court proceedings to protect those involved in crime from the “taint of guilt,” according to the court’s purpose clause, or mission statement.
“Baltimore City has consistently operated with the strong presumption that juvenile cases are closed,” said Juvenile Court Judge Martin Wright. “What’s still very much in that purpose clause is doing what’s in the respondent’s best interest.”
Wright said the city’s juvenile division must now change its practices because of the new law. “The bottom line is the Legislature has spoken and its our job to follow that,” Wright said.
In surrounding Baltimore County, Master Richard J. Gilbert said juvenile proceedings always have been open to the public. He hasn’t closed a case in four years, but said there were ways of keeping some court proceedings private even when the courtroom is open.
“A lot of times we have [sensitive information] and we just read it directly into the record” at the judge’s bench, he said. “Even though there’s people in the courtroom, they can’t hear what’s being read.”
But most local judicial officials said they never hesitate to close proceedings if a case involved sensitive material.
Tabatsko said he would exercise his right to close trials in instances where a young victim stands to suffer from negative publicity.
“If I had a sexual assault and I had a young victim, then I would close the case,” he said. “In abuse cases, it’s not even an issue.”
Judge William Adkins of the Talbot County District Court agreed that “very sensitive information concerning the victim” or the potential for psychological harm to the victim or the accused would be cause for closing proceedings.
Joseph H. LaMore, Anne Arundel county assistant state’s attorney, said that even though there are some cases that merit closing, most should be open.
“Juveniles get special treatment, but they are the same crimes that adults commit, so it should be public record,” LaMore said. “The press in the courtroom is sometimes a good check and regulator.”
The Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure of the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court, will decide next week how to make sure the new law is enforced equally throughout the state. Now, each judge decides whether to keep court open.
Capital News Service reporters Justin Oppelaar, Paul Briggs, and Michael S. Derby contributed to this report.