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Juvenile records are sealed to protect minors accused of crimes, not prosecutors, judges and state officials

Baltimore County prosecutors had no compunction about discussing Dawnta Harris’ juvenile court records when they argued that he should remain locked up before his trial on first degree murder charges in the death of county police Officer Amy Caprio. Neither did Baltimore County District Court Judge Sally Chester when she declared him a “one-man crime wave.” Thus, we know that Mr. Harris was arrested for a series of car thefts over the winter, and that when he was sent to an unsecured juvenile facility in Montgomery County this spring, he stole another car and was arrested again. That’s how we know that he was supposed to be confined to home detention under electronic monitoring but that he had disappeared until Monday afternoon, when he allegedly took a stolen Jeep to Perry Hall with three other teen boys who are accused of burgaling a house while he drove the car that would ram into Officer Caprio, fatally injuring her.

Everything that puts Mr. Harris in a bad light, we know. But the details of his juvenile record that might put the adults who were involved in a bad light, we don’t.

Officials at the Department of Juvenile Services have taken the position that the fact that Mr. Harris is now being charged as an adult, and that his record is now being discussed in court, opens the door to providing more information about its involvement with him during the previous months. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby insists that she can do no such thing, but that hasn’t stopped her from talking about the case, at least as far as deflecting and assigning blame goes.

“I’m more than appalled, disturbed and perplexed by the secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services’ attempt to shift responsibility away from his department by blaming my office and my attorneys for the release of an alleged murderer,” she said during a fiery news conference Wednesday. “I categorically deny the accuracy of the secretary’s statements about the actions taken both by my office and the department.”

But what actually did happen? She wouldn’t say, citing confidentiality rules surrounding juvenile records.

Here’s what the public really needs to know. After Mr. Harris was found delinquent in one of the car thefts he was accused of, he spent time in a secure juvenile detention center in Baltimore. A week later, a prosecutor and a public defender held a disposition review hearing with a juvenile judge, who decided to release him to home custody and electronic monitoring. DJS officials were not involved in that hearing (as is typical). In light of Mr. Harris’ repeated brushes with the law, his failure to appear in court and his demonstrated unwillingness to abide by the terms of community detention, did the prosecutor argue for him to stay in a secure facility? Ms. Mosby would not answer.

Did the judge adequately consider the obvious risk that Mr. Harris would violate the terms of his release? Did something occur during the week between the initial disposition of Mr. Harris’ case and the review hearing that changed the perceived risk? We have no idea. Not only is the judge not talking, we don’t even know his or her name. Is anyone from the judiciary reviewing this case to figure out how such a flawed decision could have been made?

Did anyone consider the limitations of electronic monitoring? The devices are able to demonstrate whether a juvenile is at home, but if he or she leaves, they are useless. They don’t have GPS. (And why not? The technology is ubiquitous.) A juvenile like Mr. Harris is expected to leave the house every day to go to school. DJS officials are supposed to check to make sure he does (and they say they did in this case), but if he’s not there, they have no recourse other than to canvas known contacts and look in known haunts. If a person really doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be.

Ms. Mosby faces a primary election in just over a month, and Mr. Abed’s boss — Gov. Larry Hogan — is seeking re-election this fall, so it’s not surprising that this case has become politicized. Ms. Mosby’s opponents both blame her, and at least one of Mr. Hogan’s — attorney Jim Shea — is blaming him. It’s tempting to write this squabble off as politics. But a police officer is dead, and all sides in this fight agree the teen charged in her murder should have been locked up the day she was killed. Whether there’s an election coming or not, the public needs the full story about why he wasn’t.

Mr. Harris will now have to answer for his actions. Will anyone else?

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