Night route to justice

EVERYONE KNOWS that giving a kid too much time between cause and effect dulls the effect of discipline. Yet for at-risk youths in the city's juvenile justice system, the space between arrest and adjudication can sometimes stretch to most of a year.

That's way too much time to sit and simmer, whether it's on the corner, where the temptation to make another mistake is great, or in detention, where waiting time is essentially wasted time.


Seeking to ease a persistent backlog and ensure a youth's wait for arraignment is as short as possible, the state Department of Juvenile Services, the Baltimore Circuit Court and the city Police Department have collaborated to process cases at night. And it looks to be working, with shorter waits speeding services to kids who need them to make a healthy, and permanent, return to the community.

Last week, their joint operation moved to the city's new Juvenile Justice Center at Gay Street - where it should be a harbinger of an efficient, empathetic new ethic: A youth's welfare should be shared among all agencies, not shunted from one to another.


Baltimore police have had centralized intake for adults for years; this coordinated effort is a first step at timesaving for juveniles.

After being charged, most youths are sent home with a parent to wait for three months or more for a court appearance. By law, police have up to 15 days to send a report to Juvenile Services, where an intake worker has up to 25 days to do interviews and decide what to do with the case. If the worker forwards a charge of delinquency to the state's attorney's office, that office has 30 days to decide if it will request a hearing. If it files a petition, the court clerk schedules the hearing within another 30 days and mails a summons to the child's home.

While the time may be needed to make smart decisions on the toughest cases, for many others, it is just too long.

Juvenile Services workers already were working with police, installed in a trailer in the parking lot at Northwestern District police station, the city's intake center for juveniles. On June 1, a cadre from the state's attorney's office joined them. There, Thursdays through Sundays - the busiest nights for juvenile arrests - police, assistant state's attorneys and Juvenile Services staff together considered what charges a youth might face. A juvenile could leave the station that night and expect a summons and an arraignment date in weeks instead of months.

In its first month, state's attorneys reviewed more than 200 cases; in a couple dozen of these, the collaboration resulted in decisions to change charges, or determined charges weren't sustainable. In a handful of those cases, the juvenile could go home that night instead of being detained. In most cases, the cooperation shaved months off a trying wait for justice, and for the mental health and other services many of these kids need.

The night-shift assistant state's attorneys are part of a pilot project funded through a state grant. The Circuit Court also has just found funding to add late-duty court clerks, who could schedule arraignments and hand families a summons and hearing date that very night. It is money well spent.