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Proposal Would Open D.C. Juvenile Cases

By Sewell Chan

Reprinted with permission from Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and The Washington Post.

The D.C. Council is considering a proposal that would open delinquency proceedings to the general public for the first time and end a policy that has long restricted access, even by victims, to information about juvenile convictions and sentencings.

Supporters of the measure, introduced last week, believe that it will improve accountability by allowing public observation of judges, attorneys, probation officers and social workers. They contend that the cloak of secrecy over the juvenile justice system has contributed to mistreatment or financial exploitation of children living in detention or in privately run group homes.

Advocates are divided. Some believe that the measure could help expose lack of services for and mistreatment of juveniles. But others, including officials of the D.C. Public Defender Service, worry that children would be stigmatized if details of their cases, including sensitive mental health and medical information, were publicized.

The bill's chief sponsor, council member Kathy Patterson, noted that many states have begun allowing the public to observe juvenile hearings.

"States that tried open-court proceedings on a demonstration basis are retaining that openness because they're getting better results," said Patterson (D-Ward 3), who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary. "If we're serious about the notion that it takes a village to raise a child, permitting public access is something that should be helpful."

Three other council members -- Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), Harold Brazil (D-At Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) -- joined Patterson in introducing the bill.

Patterson's committee has scheduled a hearing today on five juvenile justice proposals, including one by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) that would make it easier to try 15-year-olds as adults.

The open-court bill will not be discussed until a later hearing. The bill would permit judges to exclude a person or the general public from a hearing on a case-by-case basis, after considering factors such as protecting a child from harm, barring someone who might cause a disruption and other compelling reasons cited by lawyers for either side.

But those exceptions are not sufficient for the Public Defender Service, which represents many juveniles in court and is opposing the bill.

"The nature of Family Court is that sensitive matters concerning all the members of a child's family are routinely discussed," said Julia L. Leighton, general counsel for the defender service. "Information such as a parent's marital problems, or the mental health problems of other siblings in the family, should not be discussed in a public forum. Opening these proceedings to the public will only stigmatize children and their families and make advocates and family members reluctant to openly address sensitive family matters with judges."

Leighton noted that the law already gives limited access to people with "a proper interest in the case or the work of the court," including news reporters, on the condition that they not reveal information identifying the juvenile or family members involved.

"There's no need to take this step when the public already has access to the facts of delinquency cases of general interest because of the press presence in these courtrooms," Leighton said.

Neither the mayor nor the chief judge of Family Court, a division of D.C. Superior Court, has taken a position on the bill.

According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, based in Pittsburgh, 15 states have laws or court rules that permit or require delinquency hearings to be open. An additional 21 states, including Maryland and Virginia, allow some public access but with restrictions based on the offense or the age of the juvenile. In the District and 14 states, delinquency proceedings are generally closed.

When the first juvenile court was started in 1899 in Chicago, social reformers sought to protect children from the stigma of publicity, said David S. Tanenhaus, an expert on the history of juvenile courts. Laws closing juvenile hearings to the public became widespread in the 1910s, he said, particularly in cases involving girls and sex offenses.

In the late 20th century, juvenile courts moved away from being social welfare institutions and became more like adult criminal courts, with more severe punishments but also new protections, such as the right to an attorney, according to Tanenhaus.

The push to open hearings is part of that trend, he said. "I lean toward keeping them closed, but at the same time, there has to be community oversight," said Tanenhaus, an associate professor of history and law at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "A lot of abuses have taken place in these systems."

Robert G. Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center, a national advocacy group based in Philadelphia, said advocates were divided when states began opening juvenile courts in the mid-1990s, often as part of get-tough measures.

"On the one hand, it was in the interest of kids in general to open the courtrooms, so that the public could know that these courts were a lot tougher than anybody imagined and that there are still many abuses in juvenile courts, because kids are found guilty on flimsy evidence and incarcerated in arbitrary and random ways," he said.

"On the other hand, one doesn't want to treat young, vulnerable kids as though they are seasoned adults. They do have different privacy needs. They shouldn't be made laughingstocks in their communities."

Schwartz said he generally favored opening juvenile courts, but with exceptions so that sensitive matters -- such as mental health problems and physical and sexual abuse -- can be discussed privately.

"Opening the courts will open up a spotlight on what kids aren't getting, and therefore on what the public isn't getting," Schwartz said. "The juvenile court is an arm of government, and it should be held accountable."

Copyright 2004, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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