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'Guiding light' leaving juvenile court


Starting today Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell no longer owns the misery in the hallway.

Victims next to wrongdoers, children of neglectful parents, bullies and worse who will end up doing life on the installment plan -- they're all in a hallway in the bowels of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, waiting for their moment in juvenile court.

For the past 11 years, they have been Judge Mitchell's responsibility as the juvenile court's administrative judge. But today, the 50-year-old judge will settle into the world of adult drug users and sellers, with people old enough to make their own bad decisions. Judge Martin Welch will take over as head of the juvenile court.

It is not a decision Judge Mitchell made lightly. As one attorney commented during an impromptu tribute in his cramped courtroom last week, "There are many people who believe you are the juvenile court in Baltimore City."

The judge said last week that he simply has grown weary. The administrative responsibilities of the job rob his energy for what really matters, making life better for children, he said.

"You get a little tired after a while with encountering the perpetual 'we can't do,' " the judge said. "Change is something that's difficult in this community."

Judge Mitchell has been unable to find the money to change the grim setting of the hallway, one of his chief concerns and, in his view, a prime example of how little government really cares about children in trouble.

The hallway, at the back of the courthouse's first floor, is where children and parents end up waiting for court when the crowd spills outside a waiting room. It is a collection of sad scenes feet apart, thrown together with the odor of sweat and an air of despair.

A little boy is held aloft by an older man, moaning for his mother. An infant sleeps on a graffiti-pocked bench while her mother glares her hate at anyone who passes. An impossibly lanky teen-ager hums, eyes barely visible under his greasy bangs.

"All these people come to the courthouse, then we jam victims, perpetrators, parents, kids and throw them into this noisy caldron," Judge Mitchell said. "And then we're supposed to extract justice.

"It's been ridiculed by people across the country. It doesn't seem to move anybody. It's noisy, dank, dark. It stinks. It's like a dungeon. They expect to get results."

David B. Mitchell grew up in a small town in central New Jersey, part of a family that didn't hesitate to plunge itself into society's problems. His father was a mental health counselor and schoolteacher; his mother, a nurse; his brother and sister, teachers.

Mr. Mitchell attended the Columbia University School of Law, coming to Baltimore when fellow graduate Larry Gibson contacted the Black Law Students' Association with job possibilities here. He became a prosecutor and an assistant public defender before going into private practice that centered on labor law and contract negotiation.

He took on the juvenile assignment shortly after gaining his seat on the circuit court in 1984. Since then, the number of hearings involving such issues as juvenile crime, custody and termination of parental rights has mushroomed to more than 50,000 a year.

The court has grown to seven masters, whom the administrative judge supervises, and another judge. (The masters' decisions, except for those involving very temporary orders to place children outside the home, must be approved by a judge.)

"I think he's been one of the guiding lights in juvenile justice," said Betty Brownell, a longtime advocate for improvements in the system. "The judge took such a personal interest in this system top to bottom. I don't know where he got the time to do it. I was just a citizen getting started, and he would call you back and give you advice. He has for years."

The judge became an advocate for children outside the courtroom by participating in groups that set up programs to help delinquent youths learn skills. Attorneys and advocates credit him with modernizing the court's operations with computers during his 11 years, and with lending dignity to proceedings that had little before his arrival.

For his part, he has enjoyed the latitude of a court founded on the philosophy that even the most hardened children can be rehabilitated.

His last day in juvenile court Thursday brought closure of sorts to one of his saddest cases -- a 10-year-old Lower Park Heights boy who killed his best friend, William Munford Jr., with a shotgun days before last Christmas.

The judge released the boy from custody after about a week, ordering him to undergo a course of counseling and mentoring that would allow him to keep going to school and somehow recover from the horrible event.

"He's not afraid no more," the boy's mother told the judge during a hearing on his progress. "He's a good boy, he really is." A counselor said the boy had done well in therapy but still needed help with how he felt about himself. A prosecutor said the victim's family had begun healing, and the judge set another hearing -- he will retain jurisdiction over the case -- for next year.

The same day, Judge Mitchell had to find a home for a 2-year-old boy who was born drug-addicted and tested positive for the AIDS virus, and decide whether a 12-year-old girl had to visit the father who had beaten her mother. He had to talk tough to a 15-year-old who wound up in detention by disobeying every rTC relative who tried to take care of him.

The judge leaves the court frustrated at the thought that there still is much unfinished business.

A long-term plan to build a juvenile-justice center in the city has been held up for years by neighborhood opposition and negotiations over sites. Spokeswoman Carol Hyman said the Department of Juvenile Justice remains "very committed" to building the center and is considering several sites in East Baltimore.

Also unfinished is the case of a mother Judge Mitchell locked up after she would not divulge the whereabouts of the son she had previously abused. Seven years later, Jacqueline L. Bouknight remains in jail, in one of the longest incarcerations for civil contempt in the country. Her son, Maurice, is still missing, a fact that weighs heavily on Judge Mitchell's mind. "The question still remains: Where is the child?" he said. But he says too many children have passed through his court in all that time for him to be haunted by any one.

And for every dissolute teen-ager with a stone-cold attitude, there was a luminous child who sat hopefully in the courtroom freshly scrubbed and quiet, the kind the judge calls "little pearls."

On one of his last days in juvenile court, the judge asked two such youngsters to approach the bench, as he deliberated over whether to place them in their grandmother's care.

They were a girl of perhaps 6 years and her sleepy younger brother. The girl, wearing a purple dress, smiled shyly as she whispered into the judge's ear. Her demeanor was so infectious that even a sheriff's deputy began to grin.

But her face suddenly crumpled into sobs, and the judge handed her a tissue. She cried like an adult -- silently, mournfully, pressing the tissue hard to her face as if to erase what brought the tears.

When she was finished, the girl and her brother stepped back to their seats.

"We will certify the home of the grandmother as permanent," the judge announced.

The children smiled, as did the woman who had brought them there and now would be taking them home for good.

"Thank you," the grandmother told the judge, escorting her "pearls" from his courtroom and into the balmy afternoon.

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