Juvenile delinquents at least 14 years old could be sentenced to as much as two weeks in a special section of the Prince George's County jail under legislation approved today by the county's delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates.
"These are not the kids in junior high school," said Del. Lorraine Sheehan, "they're children who knock old ladies down and break into houses and commit vicious crimes. There's a network out there in the street. Now they'll know the court means business."
The bill -- which now goes to a House committee for possible hearings -- was inspired by a controversy that began when Prince George's Circuit Court Judge Vincent J. Femia began sentencing juvenile violators to terms of up to 30 days in the county jail.
Femia was forced to stop the practice after several fellow judges advised him that he was violating a state law that prohibits sending youthful offenders to adult prisons. To get around that law, he began giving some youths the temporary legal status of adults.
The bill that passed the county delegation today by a vote of 16 to 3 would exempt Prince George's from the law designed to keep juveniles out of adult prisons. It would allow judges to sentence youths to up to 14 days in a section separate from the adult areas.
Supporters of the bill echoed Femia's arguments that jail can be an "education experience" for youths found to be delinquent. "It's like walking through a zoo and seeing the animals there behind the cages," said Del. Sylvania Woods Jr.
Opponents replied that sentencing youthful offenders to even a short term in jail would backfire, serving to harden them as criminals. "To call this a projuvenile bill," said Del. Thomas J. Mooney, "is like calling the bombing of Vietnam peace."