Welcome to the Hotel Arizona

Check-out time is age 18

Fifteen-year-old Sun Lynn Henage threatened another girl with a butter knife after the girl cut ahead of her in line for the shower at the group home where they both lived. The court sentenced Henage to 90 days at Black Canyon, the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections detention facility for girls in north Phoenix.

Instead, Sun Lynn found herself at Black Canyon for 15 months -- and she would have been there longer if she hadn't had a private attorney fighting on her behalf. All told, between county detention and state corrections facilities, Henage served 18 months for her crime; an adult would have served no more than six. She was released about two months before her 18th birthday. (Henage allowed New Times to use her real name since she's now turned 18.)

Contrary to standards recommended by the American Bar Association and juvenile corrections experts, Arizona policymakers have taken juvenile sentencing guidelines out of the hands of the courts and put them solely under the discretion of ADJC. A judge makes a recommendation for a minimum sentence, but ADJC can keep the juvenile past the sentence for as long as the agency sees fit, up to the youth's 18th birthday.

Welcome to the Black Canyon School
Welcome to the Black Canyon School
Sun Lynn Henage
Kevin Scanlon
Sun Lynn Henage

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More stories in the Slammed special report.

An agency-wide snapshot taken February 15 showed that of the 890 youths detained by ADJC on that day, only six had been sentenced to 25 months or more. Yet 255 had already served more than two years.

"Welcome to the Hotel Arizona. You can check in any time you like, but you can never leave," says Jan Christian, a Phoenix-based juvenile corrections expert and former head of the task force on juvenile corrections that helped implement significant reform several years ago in response to a federal court order. The order does not directly address sentencing, but calls for use of the least restrictive means of rehabilitating a child.

ADJC officials argue that the agency cannot fulfill its role as rehabilitator with sentences of 60 or 90 days. Critics like Christian and Barbara Cerepayna, Sun Lynn Henage's lawyer, charge that little rehabilitation goes on in the facilities and that by keeping kids like Henage in custody until they turn 18, the agency is robbing kids of the chance to get transition services before they become adults and are forced to fend for themselves on the streets.

Further, Cerepayna says, mentally ill kids like Henage are being held past their sentences because they are unable to comply with behavior requirements set by the agency in order to get out.

This is a nationally recognized problem. In its 2000 annual report, the national Coalition for Juvenile Justice recommends against giving longer sentences and harsher penalties to mentally ill kids.

Henage has been diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder, and she's attempted suicide numerous times. She turned 18 last week, and initially moved in with Cerepayna because, her lawyer says, the girl has no place else to go and no idea how to live on her own after her time at ADJC.

Of the agency, Cerepayna says, "They have programs and they have levels and they're into this, `I don't care if you're a round peg, we're going to pound you into this square hole and, if you don't fit, we'll just keep you until you're 18 and we don't have any more to do with you and you're on your own.'"


Sun Lynn Henage has a history of shoplifting and trespassing. She was a frequent runaway.

"She runs because she has the most -- well, as she said to me, `I'm the most fucked-up client you've ever had,'" Cerepayna says.

That's almost true, the lawyer acknowledges -- quite a feat considering Cerepayna's years as a public defender, both in the adult and juvenile systems.

Even back then, Cerepayna and her colleagues tried to avoid incarcerating children.

"We were looking for the least restrictive alternative, which nobody seems to mention anymore. We wanted children to function in the community."

Cerepayna got involved in ADJC politics in the early '90s, when the department was being overhauled as part of the Johnson v. Upchurch federal lawsuit and Cerepayna was asked to sit on a task force that created new standards. For years after she left the public defender agency, Cerepayna represented ADJC juveniles pro bono.

It's a grossly underrepresented population. Juvenile detainees don't have a prison rights group like Middle Ground to represent them. Parents are often absent or unable to do much. And public defenders are cut off from their clients once a kid is institutionalized by ADJC.

But every once in a while, Cerepayna would receive a call from someone inside ADJC who would tell her about a particularly bad situation, ask her to represent a kid. So she would. After the federal court order expired in 1998, those calls stopped coming.

Until February, when Cerepayna heard about Sun Lynn Henage.

Cerepayna runs down the list of her client's misfortunes: She has a mother who's a prostitute and she has a bad relationship with her father. Her stepmother died of brain cancer and her sister committed suicide. Another sister lives on the street. Henage has spent time on the streets herself; she's been gang-raped and beaten. As for drugs, "probably everything there was, she had tried, including shooting up heroin," Cerepayna says.

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2 comments
Sueanngarzon
Sueanngarzon

This story has a lot of false statements in it! My name is SueAnn Henage Garzon, Sun Lynn is my sister. The statement of our mother bring a prostitute is in accurate as for me I never lived on the streets. This lawyer lady should probably have done her research since I believe she was used as a puppet for SunLynns poor me story. I am sickened to how this story portrays me and others in my family. BTW my older sister did die because she had a involuntary reaction to Tylenol PM not and not because she wanted to die,

Faith Simmons
Faith Simmons

ADJC Director David Gaspar

"Barbara creates anxiety for people," he says. "I think anybody who has passion for what they believe about a kid could create that. I think our agency struggles with how we understand that. I embrace that. I embrace Barbara coming in here and talking to them. Because I frankly see them as throwaway kids by society."

My God I am 30 years old now, but I was sent to to ADJC when i was 16 so that was just one year before the expiration of that ruling , I never knew i was considered a "throwaway kid by society" I sure didn't feel that way! No wonder why the adult prison population has skyrocketed now that it is 2011, Who the hell is this guy to "frankly see" anything for all of society? How the hell did we the freaking people allow this to happen? The teens and bad kids that i was housed with in success unit mostly just needed someone listen to them, they had real live issues when they where free. My first roommate she was 13yrs old and had shot her foster mother in the face because no one would listen when she said she was being abused, molested, and starved. She attempted to get help and was denied. Now what does one do when they are forced to protect themselves from their "STATE ISSUED PROTECTOR"? You can not expect children to teach themselves confidence or give themselves reassuring that there is a better life with attitude such as this David Gaspar . What a very incorrigible ADULT individual in charge of the self-esteems of so many young and encourage able people. By the way , this "throwaway kid " Is now a medical professional and if you needed medical attention I would not even hesitate help you , without judgement or second thought. I am pretty sure that I am not the only bad kid that got better.

_____faith___

 
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