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Like an errant child, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office has been playing political games for the past two months in which young defendants have become pawns, Juvenile Court officials contend.
At issue is whether prosecutors are filing unwarranted transfer requests seeking to move youths into the adult Superior Court system for prosecution.
Since March 1, presiding Juvenile Court Judge James McDougall says, the number of transfer requests has risen dramatically, clogging already jammed court dockets, threatening to cost the county thousands of dollars in processing expenses and leaving the fates of teenagers hanging in the balance.
Filling the calendars with cases that ultimately aren't going to go, that don't have a chance of success, is a total waste of court resources," says McDougall.
It is no coincidence, court officials say, that March 1 was also the date that new rules took effect for the handling of juvenile casesÏrules that the County Attorney's Office had vigorously opposed.
The new rules, ordered by the Arizona Supreme Court, essentially set deadlines for how quickly juvenile cases must be processed. At least one critic contends that the County Attorney's Office is using the transfer requests to try to strangle the system and show that the new rules are unworkable.
We're struggling for dollars here something fierce," says Barbara Cerepanya, a juvenile public defender who, outside the scope of her job, played a large role in formulating the new rules. To strain the budget just to show a fit of pique I think is unconscionable."
Bill FitzGerald, spokesman for County Attorney Rick Romley, says that there has not been a deliberate increase in transfer requests. That information is flawed," FitzGerald says. There is no significant increase in transfers because of any change in policy in the County Attorney's Office."
But Judge McDougall says there has been, enough so that he met with Romley and Wayne Stewart, head of the county attorney's juvenile division, to find out what was going on.
From what I've been told, they created a list of the kinds of cases that they're going to focus on, and they're rather automatically filing requests for transfers in those cases," McDougall says. Under the rule changes, prosecutors no longer can wait to file transfer requests at their leisure. They are supposed to file them within 15 days of receiving a case. After 15 days, they must ask a judge for permission to file a transfer.
The intent of that and other rule changes was to speed up a Juvenile Court system under which some cases languish for months, says Cerepanya.
What prosecutors are doing in response to the new rules, McDougall says, is filing for transfers whether the filings are warranted or not.
Many of these requests they're filing are not appropriate requests and don't stand a chance of success," he says. It is our belief that there are going to be a lot of transfer [requests] that are withdrawn."
The filing of requests that may ultimately be withdrawn, McDougall says, triggers a process that burdens the system.
As soon as a transfer is requested, the courts must begin investigating the severity of the crime, the youth's age and background and other factors to determine whether a youngster will have to face potentially harsher punishment in adult court.
The investigation includes ordering a probation officer to prepare a report on the case and pay for a psychological evaluation of the youngster involved. Probation reports typically require 30 to 35 hours of work to compile, and the psychological evaluations cost from $100 to $250, McDougall says.
We're talking about a significant amount of court resources to work on these things," he says, particularly if the requests stand little chance of success.
McDougall says he has not yet decided whether Romley's office has a hidden agenda.
My reaction so far," the judge says, has been to give them the benefit of the doubt [and] work with them until I can show them they're doing the wrong thing. It's new to them and it's new to us. I understand their position, but I don't support it."
Whether there has been a dramatic increase in transfer requests is not yet clear. Romley's office says there hasn't been. (Wayne Stewart said last week he did not have time to discuss the issues on short notice. It's not a simple process," he says. It's a complex issue.")
According to Dick Rice, head of the public defender's juvenile division, transfer requests rose from 13 in February to 29 in March and 33 in April. We are seeing a tremendous increase in the numbers," he says.
The explanation he has been given, Rice says, is that the County Attorney's Office prosecutors feel the new rules compel them to file the requests.
McDougall disagrees with that reasoning. Even if prosecutors cannot decide within 15 days whether a transfer is warranted, he says, they need not rush to file for one just to keep the option open. All they have to do after 15 days is take their arguments to a judge and ask for permission to file late.
It's as simple as explaining it to the court," he says.
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