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

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The case was called In Re Gault, after Gerry Gault, a boy from Globe.

In 1964, police accused Gault of making a lewd phone call to a local woman. Without the benefit of an attorney, the 15-year-old testified that a friend had made the offending call. But the juvenile judge did not believe him and sentenced Gault (who was on probation for shoplifting) to up to six years in a state reformatory.

An adult convicted of the same crime could have been incarcerated for no longer than two months. Gault served three years while his case was appealed by storied Phoenix attorney Amelia Lewis.

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Gault's favor.

Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority that "under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court," and that juveniles do have rights.

Spurred on by Gault, juvenile law had been overhauled by the time Kemp was appointed to the county court bench in 2005.

Yes, kids now have rights they never had before, but those rights came with a generally unintended consequence:

For generations, Juvenile Court had been a place where rehabilitation, not punishment and retribution, was the dominant theme.

But by the mid-1980s and into the early 1990s, the growing rate of violent crimes committed nationwide by juveniles — and the spate of publicity about the kiddy "crime wave" — allowed law-and-order types an opening.

A November 1995 piece in the Weekly Standard titled "The Coming of the Super-Predator" served as a template for myriad politicians and policy-makers trying to bolster their tough-guy credibility with frightened voters.

"On the horizon . . . are tens of thousands of severely morally impoverished juvenile super-predators," author John Dilulio wrote. "Juveniles are doing homicidal violence in wolf packs."

In Arizona, ambitious young attorney Andrew Peyton Thomas (who at the time was also was penning his own screeds for the Standard) jumped on the anti-juvenile-crime bandwagon.

Working as a policy adviser to Arizona Governor Fife Symington III, Thomas helped draft the "Stop Juvenile Crime" initiative in 1995.

Pamphlets in support of the ballot proposition claimed judges too often went "soft" on violent kids, allowing them to stay in Juvenile Court instead of ordering them to adult court.

No matter that statistics provided by the Arizona Supreme Court at the time did not back those claims. The proposition sounded like the right thing to a majority of voters frightened by the horror stories.

The initiative won voter approval in 1996 and put far more control of juvenile transfers in the hands of prosecutors than ever before, and also made transfers in some of the most serious cases automatic.

The apparent assumption was that young offenders would be sentenced far more harshly in the adult system, and that the threat of this tougher punishment would result in lowered juvenile crime rates.

Arizona was not alone in this get-tough trend. More than 40 states passed similar legislation and initiatives in the 1990s.

But for reasons that social scientists continue to debate, something else was happening at exactly the same time as the new laws were kicking in.

Violent youth crime in Arizona and nationally started to shrink in 1994, according to National Institute of Justice statistics, and it has continued to decrease ever since.

That youth violence plummeted exactly when it was supposed to be exploding didn't sway "super-predator" acolytes such as Andy Thomas.

Thomas worked as a line prosecutor in Juvenile Court for a year or so before resigning to run for Maricopa County Attorney, winning election in 2004.

During that stretch, he saw what everyone else who works at Juvenile Court sees on a daily basis — parental maltreatment, substance abuse, mental-health issues, and educational shortcomings.

But Thomas has tended to frame many crimes committed by juveniles as a kind of moral defect inside the child. His real-life experiences at the Durango complex didn't move him, at least publicly, from his earlier uncompromising position on sending so many kids to adult court.

Surely, Juvenile Court is and always has been inappropriate for the most violent young criminals, of which 13-year-old Edgar Valles was one.

But recent scientific studies on the issue suggest that transferring kids willy-nilly is a bad idea.

"Juveniles prosecuted as adults re-offend more quickly and at rates equal to or higher than comparable youths retained in the justice system," Northeastern University criminal justice professor Donna Bishop wrote in a recent study.

Richard Redding, a professor of southern California's Chapman University School of Law and a leading expert on the issue tells New Times, "It may sound like a great idea to treat bunches of children as adults, and it obviously is appropriate in the most serious cases, but juvenile transfer is not a cure-all."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin