BALTIMORE – Mark Friedenthal is sitting across from a 15-year-old who is being held at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center.
The teen was arrested driving a stolen Jeep Cherokee. He doesn’t have a driver’s license. He said he bought the car from a man on the street. For $25.
“What are you going to do the next time someone tries to sell you a car for $20?” Friedenthal asked.
“I’ll have a license,” the boy mumbled.
Friedenthal raised his voice. “And,” he said loudly, “you won’t buy the car.”
This is how Friedenthal, an assistant public defender at the center, spends his days — interviewing 15-year-olds who don’t know what a trial is or 18-year-olds who have been in the system so long they know the terminology as well as he does.
Friedenthal, 44, is one of about two dozen public defenders at the center, assigned to represent juveniles who cannot pay for a lawyer. That includes most of the kids who come through the court.
His days begin with a quick stop in his office to look over the cases on the schedule. And then he’s off to the third-floor courtrooms.
He checks to see if one client is there, then says hello to another, walks into the courtroom to see when his case is up, reports back to his first client, checks on the second and looks for a third.
Outside the courtrooms, he prepares his clients, makes sure they understand what will take place, makes sure they understand one more time and then leads them in.
This continues until all his clients have been before a master.
His days don’t end there. Friedenthal spends many mornings and afternoons as a volunteer in Truancy Court and Teen Court, two programs meant to keep children out of the detention center.
Truancy Court takes place at Tench Tilghman Elementary School. Students and their parents go through 10 weeks of sessions moderated by Friedenthal and the Truancy Court staff and volunteers to identify why the students are missing school.
Andrea Bento, the Truancy Court Program Manager, said Friedenthal “has a special ability to kind of home in on the issues they’re having.”
Anthony “Bubba” Green, the Truancy Court mentor coordinator, said he has been requesting to work with Friedenthal for years.
“He’s tough, but in the end I think the kids get really great experiences out of it,” he said.
After all this, Friedenthal goes home to his condo in Baltimore County.
Friedenthal has a long history working with juveniles who have legal issues.
He joined the public defender’s office 11 years ago after he worked in the Child In Need of Assistance Unit of the Baltimore City Legal Aid Bureau representing children placed in foster care.
Both of Friedenthal’s parents are attorneys. The family moved to the Washington, D.C., area from California when his father became the dean of the George Washington University Law School, where Friedenthal eventually earned his law degree.
His father, Jack Friedenthal, is the author of “Civil Procedure: Cases and Materials,” which is used by most first-year law students. He is a professor at George Washington University. Friedenthal’s mother is retired from Freddie Mac.
At the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center, everyone knows Friedenthal. He says hello to just about every person he passes. Lawyers stop to discuss cases with him. Others ask about sports.
A few years ago he earned the nickname Mr. Free-them-all, mostly because people mispronounced his last name, but the idea behind it stuck.
“People come into the building asking for Mr. Free-them-all,” he says.
Friedenthal says he indeed strives to make sure his clients’ best interests are served, but that may not always mean sending them home.
He’s stayed with this work, he says, because he thinks the teenagers he represents need someone to rely on.
“It is important that the kids fully believe that someone has got their back,” he says.
If that means making a scene in the courtroom, he’ll do it.
When the state’s attorney across from Friedenthal tried to suggest his 18-year-old client, who, in Friedenthal’s eyes, had made a lot of progress, have his probation extended, Friedenthal wouldn’t accept it.
He began telling the master how hard his client had worked, how the system is about rehabilitation and not punishment, and how the youth should be given a chance.
The teenager was retained on probation, but he was released from community detention, a sentence similar to house arrest.
“Mr. Friedenthal has helped me out a lot,” the boy said. “I’ve learned that the juvenile system is nothing to play with.”
(Juvenile court records are sealed; the names of youths in court are not public).
But not all clients do so well — like the 18-year-old girl he represented next who stopped using the services she’d been offered.
In the courtroom, Master Kristin Peacock asked the girl if she learned anything in detention. She said no. Friedenthal shook his head in disappointment.
“I tried, Mr. Friedenthal tried, your grandmother tried,” Peacock said.
She decided to release the young woman from the system.
“Best of luck to you,” Friedenthal said outside of the courtroom. “You don’t need me anymore.”
“I can’t make an impact on all of them, you know,” he lowers his voice. “It’s a sad situation when that happens.”
Friedenthal has learned to deal with those situations over the years. Recently three of his former clients were charged in the adult system with murder.
One of them was Arteesha Holt, who was 14 when, police say, she shot two men, killing one, in a robbery attempt in August.
Friedenthal said it’s important to remember those are special circumstances, and that a lot of the problems with the kids go deeper than just their offenses.
With that in mind, he says he keeps a positive attitude.
And when a student or intern wants to spend a day watching a public defender at work, Friedenthal is usually the go-to person.
When students from two different universities were shadowing Friedenthal for a day recently, another attorney said, “You always have somebody following you around.”
“If you could,” Friedenthal replied, “you’d follow me around too.”