Maryland To Juvenile Judges: Do Your Job
July 28, 2016 (Fault Lines) — It’s a rare day for any court to address a moot case. When that moot case happens to be a juvenile delinquency case, it’s the legal equivalent of a unicorn. That’s what makes In re: W.Y, filed yesterday by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals worth noting, as an Appellate Court actually opined Juvenile Judges and Magistrates can’t just recite statutory language when shipping juveniles alleged to be delinquent out of state. They have to actually establish an affirmative factual record now, and afford the child and his parents due process.
“W.Y.” wasn’t the best of kids. Back in 2012, he robbed another child while wearing a ski mask and wielding a BB gun. Once the cops got him, the court “committed”* W.Y. to five months in the Victor Cullen Center, a Level B, “staff secure”** facility. He’d next appear before the Court in May of 2014 for possessing a regulated firearm (a .38 caliber handgun) and violating the terms of his probation from the 2012 robbery. On this next “commitment,” W.Y. ran through the typical wringer of “status” and “placement” hearings until November, when the Juvenile Judge hearing this case finally took his plea and asked how he could possibly let W.Y back into society.
Unsatisfied with W.Y.’s continued assertions that it was a “mistake” and he was being a “knucklehead,” the Judge ordered W.Y.’s continued “commitment” until a disposition hearing that December, where the State and W.Y’s counsel argued whether W.Y. should remain in a Level B facility or move to a Level A, “hardware secure” facility. Because the Victor Cullen Center didn’t do a good enough job rehabilitating W.Y., the judge took a form designating his commitment to a Level A facility with the following language.
A – Secured Facility – [W] is not be placed at Victor Cullen because he was placed there in 2012.
**Equivalent facilities for the juvenile are not available in the State of Maryland; and institutional care in the other jurisdiction is in the best interest of the juvenile and will not produce undue hardship.** (Emphasis added.)
W.Y. and his parents took issue with that inserted language, especially the bolded part, because the next “Level A” facility was in Pennsylvania. Maryland’s family laws allow for a transfer of juveniles found “delinquent” to other states, but there are restrictions on the process. First, the juvenile has to have a court hearing with the kid’s parent or guardian receiving notice and an opportunity to be heard. Second, the Court has to find Maryland doesn’t have an appropriate, equivalent facility (they did in Victor Cullen), and that “institutional care in the other jurisdiction” is in the kid’s best interests and “will not produce undue hardship.” The Juvenile Court placing W.Y. out of state didn’t have that hearing, and Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals took issue with that, setting an example for Juvenile Judges and Magistrates in the state.
First, the Court held the trial judge abused his discretion on requiring the placement be anywhere other than the Victor Cullen Center. The placement of juveniles found “delinquent” was exclusively at the discretion of Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services (DJS), and the judge setting restrictions on that placement violated a separation of powers between the judge and DJS. Second, merely inserting the statutory “magic words” into a form order doesn’t count as a hearing. You actually have to give the child and his or her parents or guardians notice the kid might get shipped out of state, and give them the opportunity to respond.
The State attempted to side-step this by saying W.Y.’s parents were notified of every single hearing and had the ability to respond. That wasn’t good enough for the Court of Special Appeals. Nothing in the record even suggested once W.Y.’s parents had notice their child might be placed out of state. W.Y. didn’t even know it was possible; the language on his Plea form read, “I fully understand that the worst the Court can do to me is send me to a State juvenile institution until I turn 21.”
Furthermore, the Court of Special Appeals said W.Y.’s family “couldn’t be charged with knowing the only in-state Level A facility [was] Victor Cullen.” Simply letting the family know about hearing dates didn’t give them the specific notice and opportunity to be heard the law required. Juvenile Judges and Magistrates contemplating sending youth to an out of state facility had to have a specific hearing and establish findings of fact consistent with the law, allowing families notice and an opportunity to be heard.
We are not saying that an out-of-state placement in this case was per se improper…Nor are we saying that courts cannot use form orders to streamline the process of documenting its decisions. We are saying, however, that a juvenile court must establish an affirmative factual record that supports the FL § 5-607 findings that justify an out-of-state placement for the particular juvenile, and that the court’s order, however generated, must reflect those findings. (Emphasis added.)
This is a good ruling, requiring juvenile court judges and magistrates to actually establish facts and ensure due process for an issue that truly was capable of repetition and evading review from an Appeals Court. Issues of that nature occur every day in the juvenile justice system. Maryland’s Appellate Court mandating those who have power over our kids’ lives and liberties actually follow the law, hold hearings, and establish findings of fact before boxing them up and shipping them off to Abu Dhabi is a refreshing step. It’s a baby step into an incredibly deep cesspool of procedural and systemic horror, but we’ll take a win when we can get one.
*”Committed” is sanitized, juvenile court language for “jailed.”
**”Staff secure facilities have “staff” keeping the kids inside. “Hardware secure” means perimeter fencing with barbed or razor wire.