The quiet(er) drama of juvenile court

Judge Joseph Smyth presides in Montgomery County Juvenile Court, deciding the fate of teenagers and younger children. Many of the cases he hears are drug-related.
Judge Joseph Smyth presides in Montgomery County Juvenile Court, deciding the fate of teenagers and younger children. Many of the cases he hears are drug-related. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 20, 2014

The teenager's offense was ugly.

Montgomery County Juvenile Court already had found that the 18-year-old raped two young relatives four years before. That's why he was placed in a residential treatment program and told to return to court.

But as he stood in front of Judge Joseph A. Smyth, the young Pottstown man seemed to have turned his life around. His attorney wanted probation ended and the case closed.

Deputy District Attorney Sharon Giamporcaro would have none of it.

"These two victims are still at a very young age - 10 and 12," she said. Ending his court supervision "is putting them in jeopardy."

Most of those under 18 who clash with the law land in juvenile courts. In 2012, Montgomery County heard delinquency, or criminal, cases involving 2,156 children accused of committing crimes. More than 31,000 cases cycled through all of Pennsylvania that same year, for accusations ranging from fights in school to rape.

Some cases arise from family tensions. One girl faced Smyth in April on a simple assault charge for hitting her stepfather on the head with a rolling pin, her stepfather said as he sat in the court waiting room.

Many others are drug-related, such as one heard last week for a 17-year-old accused of being part of the Main Line ring that allegedly sold drugs to high school students.

Most proceedings and records are closed - including all cases of abuse and neglect - reflecting a desire to protect children who don't deserve to have youthful transgressions follow them through life.

Some are open.

In recent weeks, The Inquirer observed hours of delinquency hearings in Montgomery County Juvenile Court. The newspaper, following its policy of not naming minors in most criminal cases, agreed not to print names.

Smyth, a judge for 30 years, presided over cases of baby-faced children and impatient teens.

The sessions can seem messy, with prosecutors, public defenders, and others buzzing around the children, trying to strike a balance between protecting society and helping turn young offenders away from lawbreaking.

Probation officers are prominent during juvenile proceedings, acting as mentor, counselor, and enforcer of court rulings. It's a tough job, said Steve Custer, the county's chief juvenile probation officer.

"You're kind of saying, 'Trust me, kid, but if you say the wrong thing, I'm going to have to drag you back into court,' " he said.

Since Pennsylvania established its juvenile justice system in the early 1900s, the court "has changed its purpose from solely treatment and rehabilitation to rehabilitation and punishment," said Riya Saha Shah, a staff lawyer at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. "What that has meant is there are harsher consequences for kids."

Some changes, such as a law that says youngsters cannot waive their right to legal representation in court, flowed from the Luzerne County "kids-for-cash" scandal, in which two Juvenile Court judges went to prison after accepting payoffs to send children appearing before them to certain facilities.

In Montgomery County, Smyth had to decide what to do about the 18-year-old accused of raping relatives. The judge looked up from the file he was reading and said the psychiatric evaluation offered a good prognosis.

"Any medicine involved now?" he asked, peering over his glasses at the public defender. The young man's mother shook her head as Kosinski said, "No."

He noted that the teen was nearly finished with high school. The judge agreed to close the case - but only after graduation.

The teen's shoulders drooped, but it could have been worse: Smyth could have kept the case open until he was 21.

Small child, big crimes

A 12-year-old boy sat in court, appearing even tinier in a baggy sweatshirt and pants that could have come from a grown-up's closet.

His crimes also were more fitting of an adult.

In November, he was found to have raped a younger relative. His aggressive behavior at Mathom House, the Doylestown residential treatment center where he first was placed, brought him back to court in March.

Assistant Public Defender Richard Simon told Smyth the court psychologist, the boy's parole officer, and others recommended moving him to a program for young sex offenders at the Northwestern Academy in Northumberland County.

Smyth agreed. The boy would be transferred from his temporary stay in the detention center as soon as a bed at the academy was available.

A juvenile trial

A 17-year-old Collegeville student faced Smyth this month after being accused of resisting arrest, public drunkenness, and disorderly conduct stemming from a November incident at the North Montco Technical Career Center. Though his crimes were misdemeanors, his parents gave permission to observe their son's trial.

It took about two hours and included video from a school security camera.

Assistant Public Defender Adrienne Kosinski, along with the young man's parents, said a Towamencin detective had been unnecessarily rough with the teen, who had not put up a fight. The prosecution disagreed.

Both sides played parts of the video, which had no sound. Footage showed the boy sitting docilely in his chair most of the time, and an apparent scuffle on the floor beyond the full camera view. Eventually, he was handcuffed, put on a gurney, and taken to a hospital. A drug test found traces of marijuana in his system.

Smyth dismissed the resisting-arrest and disorderly conduct charges. But the teen's confused behavior, slurred speech, and lethargy led the judge to find him delinquent of public drunkenness.

"If I were the parents," Smyth said somberly, looking toward them, "I'd try to find out about that."

Custer wasn't familiar with that case. But he likes to think juvenile court can be a good thing for children: "Sometimes if you're there with the right things and the right people, you can help them."



comments powered by Disqus