LET'S CALL him Earl. He's about 14. As Earl walked past Judge Shellie F. Bowers' bench in juvenile court, he cursed the judge. Then he cursed as he said, "I didn't do it. . . . You don't know me." Finally, Earl pulled away from court officers and smacked his hand against the wall in anger. As the door to the hall leading to the holding cell for juveniles was shut, Earl's shouting could be heard: "I been beat before. . . . It don't mean nothing to me. . . . I'm gonna hang myself.

What Earl was throwing a fit about was a matter the court had decided in three minutes. The decision was to send Earl back to a city detention center for juveniles. The boy was accused of having robbed a man of $35 in the men's room of a cafeteria at 14th Street and New York Avenue. A policeman testified that he caught Earl running away from the scene, and the victim later identified Earl as his assailant. The charges against the boy came while he had illegally overstayed his Christmas leave from a juvenile detention center on another charge. Earl's lawyer protested that the boy had found a job in an ice cream shop in Georgetown since he had left the detention center. Judge Bowers said that did not matter. He decided to send him back to the detention center -- thereby prompting Earl's fit.

We make no judgment as to Earl's guilt; he says he was at the scene of the crime but that someone else committed it. But between the foul words, Earl seemed to be saying that the judge, the court officers, the lawyers, they all did not understand what was going on with him. His screaming attempt to get the judge to listen to him seemed to be an echo of screams let out by thousands of children going through the juvenile court every year. To watch that court in action is to see cases decided at a lightning pace, with the judges speaking to probation officers, policement and lawyers in a shorthand of legalisms while the children stand there with no understanding of what is happening to them. Children who have been through the system often say they did not know what happened, and, according to youth workers, the children make no connection between the wrong they are accused of committing and what happened in court; the idea of punishment for crime is lost.

What is also lost is the fact that the snap decision, whichever way it goes, will be of huge consequence in the child's young life. In the District, the decision is all the more important because a sentence to a detention center is a sentence to an overcrowded, understaffed place where physical and sexual abuse are more easily found than are education or counseling. School classes at the center lump all ages together and include youths who have been found to be involved in crimes as well as children awaiting a hearing. The stay in a detention center also averages about 70 days before a hearing. That is a very long time for a child. Being sent to a detention center is such a fear that one mother, on the morning we sat in court, begged the judge to send her son to St. Elizabeths, a mental institution, to avoid the detention center. The judge pointed out that there was no finding that the boy had mental problems, and he could not foist children on the hospital without justification.

The reason for this dread of the detention centers, Cedar Knoll and Oak Hill, is contrary to their purpose: they offer little rehabilitation but much of the criminal atmosphere of an adult jail. Last month, a D.C. Bar Committee report on the juvenile division of the court found that juvenile rehabilitation is not accomplished by the courts, by the city's Department of Human Services, by anyone.

What can be done? Every child should be followed through the juvenile court system by a judge who can account for the child's progress and understand the child's particular problems. But not even this will help unless DHS improves conditions at the detention centers and offers youngsters some real help while they are there as well as if they are sent home to await a hearing.