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

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Ralph begins to cry as a detention officer leads him out of the courtroom and back to his cell.

Finally, bailiff Lena Hertel calls Malika's mother into court.

Glaring at everyone, Malika shuffles in through a side door in handcuffs and shackles.

On this day, she is one of 203 juveniles in custody at the Durango detention facility, a full house.

Malika is 12, but looks years older.

She sits at the defendant's table between her quietly weeping mother and her court-appointed attorney. No other family members are in court.

Judge Kemp peers at the girl's file and nods to himself. He had placed Malika on probation just a few months earlier after she admitted beating up a neighbor girl and then stealing her bicycle.

Malika threatened her mother with a kitchen knife just weeks after the judge had sent her home. Though no one got hurt, the incident scared Malika's mom enough to inform a probation officer, which was how the girl ended up back in court.

Elise Herman, a rookie prosecutor, asks the judge to keep Malika locked up because she "is a danger to others, and probably to herself, at this point in her life."

Without much conviction, Malika's attorney asks Kemp to release the girl on intensive probation so that she can attend school and, perhaps, receive more extensive services.

The judge asks Malika's mother what she has to say. The woman responds in a run-on sentence:

"She's been lying about her age and she has all these text messages coming in from older guys and I'm a single mom and I set up my job around her but she needs more help and discipline though she's not a really bad kid but she's just screwed up."

Kemp replies simply, "This report is really bad," referring to the probation officer's damning appraisal.

Malika speaks briefly.

"I was getting my grades up before my mom and me got into it again," she says. "I got some certificates. I earned them. You gotta let me out, please, sir. I'm ready to be good. I promise."

The judge isn't swayed. He tells her, "In my view, you are completely out of control. You need significant help. I'm going to keep you locked up until we can figure out the next step for you."

Malika briefly drops her tough-chick persona, her tears falling onto the table. Her mother tries to hug her, but the girl coldly turns away.

The courtroom clears. Kemp takes off his robe and steps to the gallery to speak with the elementary school kids who have been looking on intently.

"What's going to happen to her?" a 10-year-old girl asks of Malika.

"She's going to sit in there and wait, and eventually she'll get out, and she should," the judge says. "Meanwhile, her probation officer and other people are going to look for programs for her. We have to make sure that she's not going to hurt anyone or hurt herself. But she obviously has a lot of problems, and it's not going to be easy for her."

The student replies, "When I was 7 or 8, I was hanging out with some big kids in my neighborhood. But they got into trouble. One of them went to juvie. My mom finally put her foot down."

The school counselor asks for advice on how to keep her students, many of whom live in crime-ridden neighborhoods, from ending up like Malika.

"It's the basic stuff, the common-sense stuff," he says. "The going-to-school-every-day routine, the not-getting-into-drugs. The corny-but-true stuff. There are a lot of bad things and bad people out there."

Another student asks, "How do you go home after being a judge all day and not be sad?"

Kemp says, "I have a great wife and three great kids. And I do see some kids during the day who really are trying to make it out of the mess they're in. They're the ones who give me hope and keep me trying."

In 1967, when Michael Kemp was a boy in his native Illinois, juvenile judges alone determined the legal fates of children accused of breaking the law, and of those whose home lives were so disastrous as to demand court intervention.

Until then, juveniles virtually had no rights in court — no right to representation by a lawyer, no right to cross-examine witnesses, no protections against self-incrimination.

What the judge decided usually was the end of it.

The theory for generations had been that juvenile courts would serve as a sort of governmental parent in the stead of real parents. Civil liberties and due process of law never entered the equation.

In 1967, however, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a watershed decision in an Arizona case that forever altered juvenile law.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin