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Opening Juvenile Court Op Ed

Monday May 9, 2005

Special to the Courier-Journal May 9, 2005
Opening Kentucky Juvenile Courts Benefits to Everyone

Irv Maze
Jefferson County Attorney

Our community has been touched recently by several tragic and near-tragic crimes committed by juveniles. Unfortunately, many more potentially tragic juvenile cases lurk hidden in the court system. Under current Kentucky law, you cannot learn about them from officers of the court most familiar with these cases, and you cannot observe how the judges, prosecutors and other officials attempt to preserve public safety while attempting to rehabilitate juveniles found guilty of these crimes.

Because of these recent cases, and the hundreds more you have not heard about, the cloak of confidentiality must be lifted from Kentucky juvenile courts. Opening Kentucky juvenile courts to some degree of public scrutiny will benefit the court, the accused, and the public.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, juvenile court advocates have debated whether the proceedings of such courts should be open to public scrutiny. As recently as the 1970s, the trend has been to maintain the confidentiality of the proceedings, citing as reasons the rehabilitative purpose of juvenile court and the need to avoid stigmatizing juvenile offenders.

However, over the course of the last century, and most dramatically the last two decades, the social environment has changed significantly, with sharp increases in young perpetrators committing the same crimes as adults. In response, many states have modified their juvenile confidentiality statutes to provide differing degrees of public access. Most states no longer have a complete prohibition against public and media access to juvenile proceedings.

Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Utah and Virginia allow public access to juvenile court proceedings if the offense would constitute a felony if committed by an adult. Florida extends this principle one step further, and allows the name, photograph and address of a child charged with an offense that would constitute a felony or three or more misdemeanors to be public.

Kentucky, meanwhile, maintains one of the strictest juvenile court confidentiality statutes in the nation.

Advocates of closed juvenile courts are concerned that public scrutiny would traumatize and stigmatize children and families, provide a permanent record of a single youthful mistake, and hinder the rehabilitative role traditionally taken by the court. These are valid concerns that should be considered seriously when discussing legislative changes to the current law, particularly regarding issues not related to criminal activity, such as dependency, neglect, and out of control petitions.

Currently, Jefferson Juvenile Court takes these factors into consideration when determining a legal solution for a juvenile in its charge. First-time offenders accused of committing non-violent crimes are regularly placed with Kentucky Court Designated Workers for counseling and other services designed to provide corrective action without a court hearing. These are cases most people identify as classic delinquency issues.

In reality, juveniles are more and more commonly using guns and other weapons to commit murder, rape, assault, and robbery, as well as drug trafficking. Assaults in schools alone have doubled in the past decade. In Jefferson Juvenile Court, there were 1,382 juvenile violent crime offenses in 1993. By 2003, that number had grown to 2,525. In 2002, of 305 juveniles eligible to be waived from confidential juvenile court to public circuit court, 35 were so indicted. In 2003, 36 of 277 were waived to circuit court.

So the majority of juvenile offenders remain behind the closed doors of juvenile court. Many are repeat or multiple offenders, with lengthy juvenile histories at fourteen and fifteen years of age. These individuals have proven themselves a threat to community. And it is these cases which need to be made public, to allow the most information available to the court in making its decision, to insure accountability of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement, and to alert the community to the presence of juveniles who commit violent crimes.

Kentucky’s Juvenile Court confidentiality statute has a consequence not envisioned by its framers. In three unrelated cases within the past year, information on juvenile court cases has been obtained by the media through families of defendants. The information the public received on each case contained significant factual errors or omissions. Because of current Kentucky law, as the prosecutor, I could not correct this misinformation without committing a misdemeanor. I am bound to uphold and abide by the law, whether or not I agree with it.

Some would argue that this is an urban issue. I disagree. I grew up on a farm, in a rural community. A variety of influences have changed forever that community. My colleagues throughout Kentucky report similar transformations in their counties. The problems are just as real, and the need for more information just as pressing, as in metropolitan areas of the Commonwealth.

Kentucky courts, interpreting the current law, have steadfastly upheld the confidentiality of juvenile court proceedings. Legislative change, then, is the only path to reconcile the state’s position with the reality of current juvenile crime statistics. The choice Kentucky has now is whether it will be among the last to open its juvenile courts, or to do so now. Our community deserves to know how the justice system deals with violent crimes, even when committed by juvenile. As we have seen, they affect us all.