A Prince George's County Circuit Court judge, determined to toughen what he thinks is "the carnival atmosphere of the Juvenile Court and juvenile justice," has begun ordering 11 to 18-year-old juvenile violators to serve up to 30 days in the county's adult detention center.
Judge Vincent J. Femia, who began hearing juvenile cases July 5, has sent six youths to jail, despite protests from state juvenile services officials, who consider the new punishments improper.
Officials at the Dention Center in Upper Mariboro have set aside cell space for juvenile offenders under orders from Femia Juvenile offenders are placed in cells of their own but, otherwise are treated like adult offender. One youth later complained to the judge of harrassment by other prisoners, who spat on him and threw milk cartons of urine at him.
Femia says he is ordering the youths to jail for educational, not punitive, reasons. "We've spent 15 years trying to insulate juveniles from what can happen to them they commit crimes," he said. "They ought to know what can happen when they do these things as adults.
"Somebody has got to establish the fact and get the work out that juveniles cannot get away with criminal conduct," Femia said. "And that's my job. If I have to be the community ogre because of it, so be it."
Normally, juveniles involved in crimes are put on probation sometimes on the provision that the youths take part in specialized rehabilitation programs. In extreme cases, youthful offenders are sent to juvenile institutions until the age of 21.
But Femia, one of four Circuit Court judges who hears juvenile cases on a rotating basis, decided that a new approach was needed.
"When I came down here this court was a joke," he said. "People were coming down her to have a good time."
"What shocked me," the judge said, "is that we have kids who are repeat offenders, who have committed the same criminal acts time and time again and gotten their wrists slapped. I believe in telling them exactly what life is about."
In one recent case, Femia offered a 17-year-old youth who was charged with lying to a police officer a choice between seven days in jail - and five strokes of a belt from his father.
Femia said the youth chose the beating, whereupon Femia vacated his office and left the youth and his father alone, telling them that he would be listening to make sure the punishment was administered. It was. "The father came out with a very satified look on his face," Femia said. The case was then dismissed.
Femia concedes that his approach is unorthodox, but the tall red-headed jurist has been known to take unorthodox approaches before. About 18 months ago when he was presiding months ago, when he was presiding over traffic court, Femia instituted a policy of giving convicted drunken drivers a choice: lose your license or spend a night in jail.Most, he said, chose jail.Femia says that in his new assignment he is using jail terms only with youths he thinks "have been amenable to shock treatment." So far, most of the youths have had long arrest records, he says.
In another recent case, Femia ordered a 16-year-old youth to spend three weeks in the detention center after he allegedly assaulted an elderly woman and stole her handbag.
After a week, the youth wrote Femia a letter begging for "mercy," and promising that, if released, he would "work seven days a week and go to school at night."
The youth told the judge that"after six days and nights I am about to go crazy. I could cry - if I had ever known this was going to happen I wouldn't (have commited the assault)," he said.
In a court session Tuesday, the youth told the judge that he had been terrified by the older male prisoners who threatened him continually, spat on him and tossed urine in milk cartons across a hallway into his cell.
Femia believes that exposure to prison conditions may be the only way of helping juveniles who seem headed toward becoming habitual criminals.
"I'm giving them a choice," said the judge, who is one of five incumbents running for reelection this fall. "I let them see what happens to adults when they commit felonies, and then they can decide: they can either straighten up they can go back for more."
The state's chief corrections officer, Mark Levine, said yesterday he believes Femia's initiative may help some juveniles, if it is used wisely. "If you have an individual who isn't responding to community program, we in correction find it helpful to give them an idea of what it's like to be locked up," he said.
"It sometimes has an electrifying effect on their attitude towards themselves and what they're doing with themselves."
Prince George's juvenile services director Jim Dedes says, however, that he does not think the judge's tactics are appropriate.
"We are not recommending that any juveniles be sent to the detention center," Dedes said. "We have juvenile institutions in this county, and I think they are capable of handling these kids. That's what they are for.
"I agree with much of the judge's philosophy," Dedes said, "but I don't agree with his methods - I can't condone sending 11-year-olds to the detention center."
Officials at the county detention center must also comply with the judges order, but officials there are reportedly unhappy with the arrangement, which is worsening the centers' manpower problems.