Can Maricopa County’s Juvenile-Justice System Fix Troubled Teens? Rarely, One Judge Laments

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The most controversial change gave prosecutors sweeping new authority to charge certain juveniles as adults and made many of those transfers to Superior Court automatic under law.

The sole reason Mike Kemp even got a say in the Edgar Valles transfer to adult court was the boy's tender age at the time of the murder.

Juvenile delinquency courts usually get mentioned in the media only after a young menace hurts or kills someone.

Then, conservative politicians like County Attorney Thomas and like-minded pundits usually thank God out loud that Arizona law does not allow judges to go "soft" on alleged perpetrators anymore.

However, the reality of life in juvenile delinquency court — at least in Judge Kemp's court — had nothing to do with "soft."

New Times can make the following observations after having sat in the judge's courtroom for months of delinquency hearings:

• Engaged judges like Kemp seem better equipped than anyone, prosecutors and lawmakers included, to decide how and in which court to adjudicate minors charged with crimes.

• Juvenile judges generally are anything but soft on juveniles who commit crimes.

• What violent youngsters such as Valles had in common with most juveniles in Kemp's court was: They all lacked adult supervision.

That last point goes to the heart of this story.

Most of the kids who ended up on Mike Kemp's delinquency radar screen are pretty much out in the world on their own.

Lacking education, living in poverty, into illegal drugs, with scant job prospects, juveniles who break the law should come as no surprise to the public. The real surprise is that they don't do it more often.

Asked at the end of one long day in court to sum up his greatest frustration, Kemp uttered just one word: "Parents."

Anyone who spends time at Juvenile Court cannot help but see how many parents are disconnected from their children's lives.

The parents who did show up in court sometimes seemed more oblivious to the gravity of the situation than the juveniles themselves.

"This is their chance to impress me," the judge said of parents, "and they're chomping on gum and not even pretending to show respect. It's an indication about how many of these parents' lives are."

The judge wasn't suggesting that all parents are to blame for the legal fixes their progeny had gotten into. Some had lost control of their children for reasons that cannot be explained away by simply calling them "bad" caretakers.

For example, not every mother has a family member or someone else to fall back on in times of trouble (though it is almost cliché how many grandmothers try to come to the rescue).

But as Kemp told New Times, "There are a lot of parents who can't even pull it together to get here on time for a court hearing for their child. That should tell you all you need to know.

"Their kid is out there doing drugs — meth is still big — hanging out, maybe going to school when they feel like it, doing crimes here and there. And then Mom comes in here and begs me not to punish her kid, to have all the answers. I just don't."

And no wonder.

In the 2008 edition of KIDS COUNT, Arizona rated a lowly 39th in a survey that considers the economic, social, educational, and physical wellbeing of children across the nation.

The study by the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation is worth noting because it ties in so closely with the daily events at Juvenile Court.

In part, the study considers the percentage of children living with parents who do not have full-time year-round employment; of teens who are high school dropouts; of teens not attending school and not working; of children living in poverty; of children living in a one-parent family.

Arizona dropped three notches from its 2007 rating.

That seems to refute the claims of departing Governor Janet Napolitano and her administration that the wellbeing of Arizona's children improved dramatically on her watch.

Still, violent crimes committed by juveniles have been on the decline in Maricopa County and nationwide since 1994. Yet overall business at Juvenile Court remains brisk.

Maricopa County statistics show that 24,390 children under the age of 18 were "referred" to Juvenile Court for prosecution over a yearlong stretch that ended June 30, 2008.

About half of those referrals involved lesser infractions such shoplifting, truancy, running away, curfew, alcohol or marijuana possession, and disorderly conduct.

A more-disturbing number is the 5,632 youths ordered incarcerated — "detained" is the daintier official term — by judges in a county juvenile facility during that year. About 40 percent of these kids committed crimes against people and property.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin