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

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Some of these juveniles — 551 — were sent to the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.


A mother plays with her young niece's hair as she awaits her daughter's delinquency hearing in the hall outside Judge Kemp's courtroom.

Dressed in plaid shorts and a sky-blue spandex top, the woman is chewing gum hard and sweating profusely.

Explaining the perspiration, she says she's just gotten off a city bus and practically ran to court on this already-sweltering summer morning.

This single mom knows the drill.

Her only child has been incarcerated at the nearby detention facility for a few weeks and has been in and out of Juvenile Court since she was 9.

But Malika's case will have to wait, as it is number nine on Kemp's calendar.

Inside the courtroom, 16-year-old Daniel admits his guilt in a pot-possession case.

The judge is about to sentence him to 24 hours of community service, urinalysis tests, and a probation term — typical for first offenders — when boom.

"Have you taken any alcohol or illegal drugs in the last 24 hours?" Kemp asks the boy.

"Yes," Daniel says. "I smoked weed last night."

The judge leans forward and says, "Excuse me?"

Prosecutor Herb Kalish, one of few veterans from the County Attorney's Office assigned to Juvenile Court, speaks up.

"Knowing he was coming to court today, I think it's safe to say this juvenile has a problem," he says.

Kalish asks Judge Kemp to hold a 30-day jail sentence over Daniel's head until the boy completes a full year on probation.

"What you did was not exactly a great thing to do, to put it mildly," the judge tells him. "I'm wondering, what are your plans for this summer?"

"Nothing," Daniel replies, shrugging and pulling on oversized jeans that are barely hanging onto his hips.

"What's going on here, Mom?" the judge asks Daniel's mother.

"Me?" she replies. "Oh. I thought he was going to summer school, but I guess he changed his mind."

Kemp just shakes his head.

Half a dozen fourth- and fifth-graders from west Phoenix's P.T. Coe Elementary School are observing with two of their counselors.

"What a punk," a little girl whispers to one of the counselors, who nods in agreement.

The judge releases Daniel to his mother but does go along with prosecutor Kalish's suggestion of a deferred jail sentence.

The boy will have to serve time only if he flunks probation, which certainly seems possible.

The judge also orders Daniel to take an immediate drug test with a probation officer. In the hall, Daniel's mother questions the need for the test since he's already owned up to smoking pot.

"Why don't they just get him some help instead of treating him like a criminal?" says the woman, adding that she has a 19-year-old daughter "who is doing fine, and she used to be a mess, too."

New Times asks the woman why she does not insist that Daniel attend school or, perhaps, find work.

"He's never gotten into anything," she replies, put off by the question. "He got kicked out of the alternative school they sent him to. His father is a creep. He's never had anyone but my brother to be like a dad. But my brother doesn't have time to mess with him anymore."

Back inside the courtroom, the judge is about to order a 161/2-year-old incorrigible to juvenile prison.

The boy, Ralph, isn't violent, just a drug abuser and a thief (he first got caught as a 14-year-old driving a stolen car, though he blamed an older boy for actually hot-wiring the vehicle).

His probable last chance of staying free was success in the intensive probation program, in which court officials monitor juveniles extremely closely.

These hyper-vigilant officers are at the core of the county's delinquency system, and judges usually follow their recommendations and counsel.

Many of the roughly 800 kids on intensive probation in Maricopa County have to wear electronic ankle bracelets that alert authorities if the kids are not where they are supposed to be.

Ralph was wearing a bracelet, but the unemployed school dropout apparently tired of being stuck inside his home. He took a chance that the bracelet would not work and cut it off. That's a crime.

But the device worked, and Ralph now is in custody at the Durango complex.

The judge asks Ralph what he has to say.

"I need to take meds for my bipolar, Judge," the youth musters.

Kemp tells Ralph that he is going to send him to Adobe Mountain, a state lockup for juveniles.

"I know this isn't going to be easy for you," he says, "but it's not happening for you out here."

Ralph's mother (the boy has no father present, which is commonplace in Juvenile Court) seems resigned to the situation and says little.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin