2021 | Courts

Officials discuss shortcomings in Montgomery County juvenile system

Judge says most juveniles she sees in court are minorities

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Officials from Montgomery County’s juvenile court system discussed shortcomings in the system such as a delinquent’s record following them into their adult life as well as racial disparities during a virtual forum Thursday night.

The forum was hosted by the Maryland Judiciary’s Equal Justice Committee and included Circuit Court Judge Karla Smith, Assistant State’s Attorney George Simms and Mary Siegfried, the juvenile supervisor for the public defender’s office, among others.

When panelists were asked a question about how they define success in the juvenile system, Smith said it’s being able to close out a juvenile’s case to ensure they don’t return to court.

“We try all the different avenues before a child is put into [juvenile] placement, and it’s really not the first thing that happens out of the gate,” she said.

The county offers diversion programs as an alternative to having a criminal record. But Siegfried said those programs aren’t always practical depending on a teen’s life circumstances.

“If [the program] requires you to be in downtown Rockville maybe five times…. If you’re a single parent or a single caretaker and you have six kids at home, and it’s a 15-year-old kid, you don’t want to send him on a bus across town all by himself,” she said.

Siegfried added that despite the fact that the criminal records of juveniles are sealed from the public, juveniles still encounter problems as adults because of their past.

“If you have immigration issues, you’ve got to report your juvenile status. For applying for financial aid at colleges, they ask questions of your juvenile record. If you want to be in the armed forces or the police department, your juvenile record is looked at,” she said.

Simms responded by saying he understood Siegfried’s concerns, but thinks the county has implemented a number of measures to help juveniles stay out of court, such as truancy prevention.

“There’s a lot of prevention programs that we have that are geared toward what you’re addressing,” he said.

Panelists were also asked about whether they are seeing racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, and several answered that they were.

Youth of color made up 84% of all juvenile complaints in Montgomery County in fiscal year 2020 (July 1 to June 30), according to a report from the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. Statewide, youth of color made up 72% of juvenile complaints during the same period.

Simms said the “overwhelming majority” of participants in the truancy prevention program are people of color.

Smith said it has become “obvious” that most juveniles who end up in court are Black or Hispanic.

“I’m not sure what the solution is, but we can’t deny that it is what we see,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com