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Court bars TV hearings for juveniles

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Saying that kids in trouble deserve a human touch, the Florida Supreme Court has effectively banned juvenile courts from conducting detention hearings via closed-circuit television.

"Our youth must never take a second position to institutional convenience and economy," the court declared in a ruling Thursday.

"Not only allowing, but mandating that children attend detention hearings conducted through audio-visual device steers us towards a sterile environment of TV chamber justice, and away from a system where children are aptly treated as society's most precious resource," Justice Fred Lewis wrote in the majority opinion.

Judges in Pinellas, Hillsborough and five other counties have conducted thousands of electronic hearings since 1996, when they won permission from the state's high court to try out the technology through a pilot program.

The Supreme Court's ruling means judges must switch off the televisions, and local juvenile justice officials must resume driving youths from detention centers to courthouses for in-person hearings.

Now, almost all detention hearings are conducted electronically in Pinellas, said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Peter Ramsberger, who argued before the Supreme Court last year in favor of continuing the practice.

Hillsborough officials could not be reached Thursday, but Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez told the Supreme Court last year that 2,900 youths had participated in electronic hearings since 1996. Though the justices had approved the use of electronic hearings in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, officials there declined to use them.

State law requires a detention hearing within 24 hours for any juvenile facing a criminal complaint and being kept at a county detention center.

The hearing is similar to an adult offender's first court appearance. The judge determines if probable cause exists and for how long to detain the juvenile, but he doesn't determine guilt or innocence.

Of the 101,659 youths who entered the juvenile justice system in Florida from July 1998 to June 1999, 54,155 or 53 percent were held in detention centers and received such hearings, said Diane Hirth, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Juvenile Justice.

From a monitor on his bench, Ramsberger can see and talk to youths at the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center, behind the courthouse in Largo.

At the detention center, a juvenile watches three monitors trained on the judge, the attorneys and the entire courtroom, Ramsberger said. Public defenders represent the juvenile in both locations.

Broward County Circuit Judge Melanie May was among judges from five of the state's 20 judicial circuits -- including those encompassing Citrus, Hillsborough and Hernando counties -- who asked for permission to conduct electronic hearings in 1996.

Closed-circuit television could link judges and young offenders without parading the youths through courthouses in handcuffs, May argued. Absent such scenes, hearings would be less volatile, escape attempts rare.

"The biggest savings was the lack of humiliation to the children," May said Thursday.

Last year, a divided Supreme Court allowed electronic hearings to continue temporarily while it waited to hear more from opponents, including the Florida Public Defenders Association.

In its ruling Thursday, the court cited that group's objections to "the proposed robotic procedure," noting the complaint that some youngsters are so confused by the "mechanical process" that they later ask their attorneys what happened.

Not all public defenders objected. Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger and Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt support the practice, which will end later this month, barring any appeals.

"We didn't see anything that showed us (youths) were being treated unfairly," Dillinger said. "It was an effective system, and it saved the taxpayers of Pinellas County some money."

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