The Prince George's County Circuit Court judge who made headlines in recent years for sentencing juvenile offenders to the county's adult jail will be featured in a television documentary next fall by the producers of the controversial 1978 prison film "Scared Straight."
Judge Vincent J. Femia -- called the "hanging judge of P.G. County" by some youths because of his hard-line reputation -- was filmed in his courtroom and during his regular lecture trips to county schools in which he takes along handcuffs, leg-irons and life-size autopsy photos.
"Vince Femia does take a different approach," said John Cosgrove, producer of the documentary, whose camera crews followed the judge last week.
"Femia's basic message," said Cosgrove, "is that if you commit a crime at school the sentence is going to be harsh, and you will be institutionalized."
Femia says his lectures are designed to "show kids the future" if they get into trouble. Perhaps the most startling aspect of his hour-long presentation is a display of large autopsy photographs of a 15-year-old juvenile who was shot to death by the owner of a house he was burglarizing.
The pictures bring an immediate hush to any noisy group of students.
"They went to the grand jury on that one," Femia tells the students, "and the jury said, 'We're not going to indict that man. A man's home is his castle.' Do you want that to happen to you?"
At the presentations, Femia asks sheriff's deputy Thomas Adams to lock up student volunteers in the handcuffs and leg-irons he brings with him, and offers them a sampling of the same meager lunch that juvenile offenders are fed when they appear before him in court.
It consists of "two pieces of bread and mystery meat," said Femia. "You never know quite what kind of meat it is."
Some students said after the lectures they were frightened by the autopsy photos. One student, who had appeared before Femia in court, said he had no desire to go back to the detention center where Femia sent him.
"Femia's basic message that we want the film to get across," said producer Cosgrove -- whose documentary is called "Combat in the Classroom" -- "is to enforce harsher sentences for juveniles, but then to get out and let them know ahead of time so they know what is coming and will obey the laws."
Cosgrove said Prince George's was selected as one of the localities featured in the film because of its success in dealing with potential student violence.
The film crews also visited the county school system's discipline centers, and its creative conflict workshop, where teachers are taught how to react in potentially violent situations.
The show will also feature the county's use of "investigative counselors," who are usually retired police officers trained in counseling and stationed in various schools.
Femia, whose efforts are generally lauded by school officials, made headlines in 1978 when he began to order some juvenile violators to serve short stints in the county's adult detention centers.
The youths were placed in cells of their own but otherwise were treated as adult offenders. Normally juveniles involved in crimes are put on probation, or sent to juvenile institutions until the age of 21.
"We've spent 15 years tryng to isolate juveniles from what can happen to them when they commit crimes," Femia said at the time. "They ought to know what can happen when they do these things as adults."
In one instance, Femia, whose courtroom style is legendary in Upper Marlboro, offered a 17-year-old youth charged with lying to a police officer a choice between seven days in jail and five stokes of a belt from his father. The youth chose the lashing.
Femia eventually stopped sending youths to jail after he was advised that under a new state law juveniles could not be housed in adult detention facilities.
Femia said he gives about 30 lectures at county schools each year.
Last October, while he was talking to a 10th grade class at Suitland High School, a 12th grader was fatally wounded by a blast from a sawed-off shotgun outside. "The irony is that if I had been talking to 12th graders," Femia said, "maybe that student would be alive today."