Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Vincent J. Femia said yesterday he remains convinced, liberals and state laws notwithstanding, that a nice two-week stretch in the county adult detention center is "the best thing that ever happened" to the difficult youths he deals with in juvenile court each day.
Last summer, Femia began a program of sentencing 11- to 18-year-old juvenile violators to terms of up to 30 days in the county jail. But he was forced to discontinue the unusual punishments after several of his fellow judges advised him that he apparently was violating state prison laws.
So now the judge has developed a new method of providng juveniles with the "educational experience" of jail; using his power under existing law, he gives some youths a temporary legal status of adults, Femia said in an interview yesterday.
Once these juveniles -- who must be at least 15 -- are under the jurisdiction of the adult courts, they must join the regular inmates in the county jail while they await their day in court.
Then, after a suitable period of time has passed, Femia said, he sends 90 percent of the youths back to the jurisdiction of juvenile court and thus out of the county jail.
This has been going on for several months, and it's all legal, Femia said, "Before, I was setting [juvenile offenders] up in a separate area" at the detention center. "But if they want me to follow the law, fine. I'll waive them right in there with the general population, with the animals."
"It's a whole new ball game with us," Femia said. "We're the county that's filling up the institutions, and the word is getting out on the streets about it. If we need to have institutions for these people, then when it comes to filling them up, Prince George's is not going to take second place to anyone."
Although Judge James H. Taylor, the administrator of the county juvenile court, counseled Femia to stop his controversial sentencings of juveniles last summer. Taylor said yesterday that he and the other two county juvenile judges have adopted Femia's technique.
"When a kid has gone through the juvenile system and is not doing well," Taylor said, "we hope that this will have the effect of making him take a better look at himself.
"When those kids come back here from the jail," Taylor said, "Their expressions have changed. They're scared. We don't know how long that kind of effect will last, but we hope it will have a permanent effect."
"It's shock treatment," said James Nichelsporn, who represents juveniles for the public defender's office. "If you've gone through the mill with a kid, if you've given him all the Thorazines and the other treatments, sometimes shock is the only thing that works. It's disorienting. Sometimes it will help a kid snap out of himself."
Between January and July of this year, before Femia and three other Circuit Court judges began hearing juvenile cases, juveniles were sent to adult court 14 times, according to Femia's figures. In the last five months of the year, Femia said there have been 57 such waivers.
"In 90 percent of those cases, we later had a reconsideration of the waiver," Femia asid. "And we sent every case we reconsidered back to juvenile court. But we don't want the word about that to get out. We want these kids to know we ain't going to mess with them."
"We're not into total punishment," said Jim Dedes, the head of the state juvenile services department in Prince George's. "But as long as what he's doing meets the letter of the law, there's nothing we can do about it, whether we agree with it or not. The judge is the judge, and he can do what he damn well wants."
Femia claims that, in fact the jail terms and other stiff sentences handed down by the juvenile court in the past five months have brought about a significant reduction in crime. Between July and December, he said, juvenile arrests dropped 44 percent, from 297 to 177, and the juvenile share of the county's crime total dropped from 40 percent to 33 percent.
In December, the number of juvenile arrests and the percentage of juvenile crime both increased, but Femia says the relapse is temporary, caused "by all those damn little shoplifters."
"Look," Femia said, "I work on the theory that these kids are human, and react like humans. "If you put his hand in a fire, it burns. If you chuck him upside the head with a board, it hurts. And he's not going to want it to happen to him again."
Femia's philosophy is not shared by all the lawyers in the county, but he is winning converts. One is Eugene Zoglio, who defended a 17-year-old youth before Femia last month. Arrested for possession of $20 worth of marijuana and $10 worth of PCP, the youth spent two weeks in the detention center before Femia waived him back to juvenile court.
"The kid called me up after the first day," Zoglio said. "He was scared to death. He was crying. He said, 'the guys are going to get me tonight.' The next day, we had to put him in an isolation cell
"But he got a real good taste of what goes on, and I really think it changed him," Zoglio said. "I'm a liberal and all that, and I questioned whether Femia's approach had any positive effect. But after this client, I've changed. I think he's done the right thing." CAPTION:
Picture, Circuit Court Judge Vincent Femia: Offering "educational experience." By Matthew Lewis -- The Washington Post