Juvenile justice concerns linger
Agency advised by council committee
ANNAPOLIS | A bill under consideration in the Senate would give extra legal protection to residents who speak out against corporations and public figures. But not everyone is happy about it. The Senate is expected to vote this week on a measure that would crack down on Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits — typically frivolous defamation lawsuits filed by wealthy plaintiffs to intimidate a vocal, less wealthy critic into settling out of court and keeping quiet.
The bill could force plaintiffs accused of filing frivolous SLAPP suits to prove their cases as legitimate before a trial can move forward.
Supporters say it will toughen the state’s current laws and save innocent defendants thousands in legal costs, but opponents say it would lift the burden of proof too high for public figures and leave many of them powerless to defend themselves against real defamation.
“You are going to have open season on anybody who holds themselves out there in the public,” said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, Baltimore County Democrat. “It is a radical departure from what SLAPP suits are supposed to be about.”
The District’s juvenile justice agency needs to provide more substance abuse treatment options for its troubled wards and drastically improve its communication with parents of young people housed as far as Utah, a D.C. Council committee said.
Members of the council’s Committee on Human Services acknowledged during an oversight hearing Friday that the Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services has made strides in responding to some security concerns at the agency’s youth detention center and has taken a tougher stance against gang graffiti, or “tagging,” at its facilities.
But the agency’s progress is counterbalanced by lingering concerns about the shuttling of youths among facilities across the country — severing ties with their parents — and continuing troubles tracking youths who abscond from their assigned locations.
Council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, reiterated his concern that DYRS Director Neil A. Stanley has a “wonderful formal education, wonderful experiences,” but not enough experience in juvenile justice.
“It pains me, it just hurts my heart — yours, too — to see these people not taken care of the way they should be taken care of,” Mr. Barry told committee Chairman Jim Graham on the dais. “I think Mr. Stanley needs to set a standard — that if you want to work at DYRS, first of all, you’re not there for a job, you’re there to do a job.”
Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, inquired about 84 job vacancies at the agency, $1.6 million in unspent funds and the high number of youths who flee from DYRS custody.
DYRS officials said hiring and procurement freezes implemented by Mayor Vincent C. Gray last year took a toll on the agency, and while electronic monitoring has helped track wards, even more needs to be done.
“I think DYRS must know where every single young person is at all times,” Mr. Stanley told the committee.
Mr. Graham noted that juvenile justice is a “split system” in the District, with about 1,800 youths on probation through the D.C. Superior Court and more than 900 committed to DYRS, which has a budget of $107 million for the current fiscal year.
The council member also pressed two primary contractors, or “lead entities,” that distribute funds to the community partners who deliver services to city youth.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat who says it is designed primarily to protect residents who take stances on public issues, such as neighborhood associations that criticize developers over planned projects that could affect their communities.
It would allow defendants who suspect they are a victim of a SLAPP suit to submit basic reasons for their suspicions.
If accepted by a judge, the plaintiff would then have to make their own case for why the suit is legitimate and should continue.
Mr. Frosh said Maryland’s current ANTI-SLAPP law, which allows defendants to motion for dismissal before or during a trial, still leaves them open to costly and time-consuming court proceedings and is one of the weakest such laws in the nation.
He argued the current law requires defendants to practically read plaintiffs’ thoughts to prove they are acting in bad faith, and that his bill would force plaintiffs to now lay out a viable case at the start.
“You’ve got to be able to show going in the door that the guy was lying,” he said. “It just provides a shortcut when it’s a SLAPP suit.”
The Senate debated the issue last week and could vote on the bill as early as Tuesday.
While Mr. Frosh contends it will protect everyday residents who are outspoken and opinionated on government issues, some of his opponents say the bill has another purpose — to protect the media from potential libel suits.
Mr. Zirkin argued the bill is being pushed by news organizations and is designed to prevent incidents similar to the case last year in the District in which Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder sued the Washington City Paper over an article he said was defamatory.
The lawsuit dragged on for several months until Mr. Snyder dropped it before a court could rule on the newspaper’s request for dismissal under the District’s ANTI-SLAPP law.
Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, Howard Republican, said Maryland’s current law is just fine and that Mr. Frosh’s bill is unreasonably hard on well-meaning plaintiffs.
“It would put an undue burden upon somebody who is trying to defend themselves,” he said. “I think that everybody deserves their day in court, and we shouldn’t be harming those who are trying to defend themselves.”
Wounded soldiers and veterans compete in a hand-bike race Sunday in Fort Meade, Md., and Spc. Brynden Keller, who lost a leg in Afghanistan, readies for a sprint. The athletes have been training in hopes of going to the Army Warrior Games, to be held April 30 to May 5 in Colorado Springs. Other events featured in the games will include archery, wheelchair basketball, swimming and sitting volleyball.
Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services Director Neil A. Stanley said he wants his agency to “know where every single young person is at all times.” The agency has had trouble tracking youths who abscond from their assigned locations.