Prince George's County Circuit Judge Vincent J. Femia, concerned that he may have violated a state law by sentencing juvenile offenders to spend up to 30 days in the County Detention Center, has decided to stop the innovative punishment.
Femia ordered that two youth he sentenced to the adult detention center be released last Friday, and agreed to discontinue what he thought were "educational exposures" of juveniles to prison life.
Femia said his decision came after consultations with Judge James H. Taylor, the administrative judge for the Family Law Division of the Circuit Court, Taylor advised Femia that under state law, juveniles cannot be housed in adult detention facilities.
One of the juveniles released from the detention center Friday was transferred to a state juvenile facility, while the other, a 16-year-old who had been sentenced to 30 days in jail for burglary, was released on probation, Femia said.
Femia sentenced a total of six youths between the ages of 11 and 18 to serve time in the county detention center after he began hearing juvenile cases July 5.
He contended that for some juveniles, a state of prison life was the only measure powerful enough to deter them from future offenses.
A Maryland law specifies, however, that "a child may not be committed or transferred to a penal institution or other facility used primarily for the confinement of adults charged with or convicted of a crime."
The only exceptions allowed to this rule are in casuses where a juvenile has been charged with a serious crime and is "waived" by a juvenile judge so that he may be tried as an adult.
Taylor said yesterday that "my reading of [the law] would indicate that we ought not to be [housing juveniles in the detension center] in light of the language of the law."
Femia said, "It's a shame that the law is so black and white on this. I'm certainly not in favor in mixing kids in with hardened criminals, but I think that in a case like the detention center, where juveniles can be maintained separately, the law ought to allow them to be there."
"What's going to happen now is I'm going to have to start waiving these kids into adult court," the judge said. "When a kid came to me before with a long record and no success with probation, I could give him one more chance, try to ring his bell for him. Now I'll have to waive them."
Femia said he plans to try to persuade the legislature to change the juvenile separation statute.
"I don't want to become an election issue or a cause celebre," Femia said, "but I am going to see how the community reacts to this at the polls. If the reaction is favorable, then maybe the legislature will do something about this next year."
Femia is running for reelection this fall.
Femia said that the mother of the 16-year-old youth released Friday was in favor of the jail sentences. Her son, Femia said, had spent time in a juvenile home without success, and had been arrested for 15 burglaries.
The boy, who served only three days of his 30-day jail sentence, said yesterday that the experience had changed him. "I wouldn't want to go back there again," he said. "It's a lot different from Boysville - you don't get to do nothing but look at the bars all day."