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

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Judge Kemp says that "many, many of these kids I see are salvageable and just shouldn't be treated as adults or even locked up at Adobe Mountain, or wherever, until there's nothing else to do."

"Obviously, there are some very screwed-up kids, and some very dangerous ones. But it's amazing how some pull themselves out of overwhelmingly bad situations — poverty, bad parents, bad neighborhoods, drugs — and become law-abiding."

Kemp had not been on the job long enough at the time to see long-term successes, but he had heard about them: onetime delinquents who earned their high school diplomas and were attending college or learning a trade, kids who joined the military and were serving their nation, and kids who simply were not getting into any more trouble with the law.

It is not difficult to predict which juveniles have the better odds of turning their lives around. They are the kids with the support of parents or guardians and others who know what a crossroads is and will do whatever it takes to try to turn things around.

One such boy may be 14-year-old Patrick, who comes from a middle-class Phoenix home with two parents who are deeply devoted to their nine children.

Patrick never had been in trouble with the law until, over a two-day period, he repeatedly shot two horses in his neighborhood with a BB gun.

Authorities charged the boy with excessive cruelty to animals, a felony.

Judge Kemp told the boy at a hearing that, by admitting guilt, he would give up his right to remain silent, "because you're going to have to tell me what you did."

Thin, pale, and nervous, Patrick said he had been shooting soda cans in his backyard, and then, "I just shot the [neighbor's] horse."

It was not much of an explanation, but it sufficed as a legal admission.

The neighbor with the horses told the judge there had been two shootings, a day apart.

"One horse was penned and he couldn't escape," the woman said, her voice trembling with anger. "This kid shot him point-blank. I heard BBs ringing off the metal corral. The horses started to stampede. It was awful. He wantonly fired at living creatures."

The woman held up a photo of one of the wounded animals.

"I notice he didn't shoot his mother or father or whatever he has," she said, and then asked the judge to jail Patrick until his sentencing. "I think that something's missing here. I think a message clearly needs to be sent."

The boy's defense attorney told Kemp, "I don't disagree with anything I just heard. My client's parents are equally horrified by what happened. No one has any explanation."

Patrick's mother, who is a midwife, said quietly that she knows the chances of a child becoming a violent adult are greater when he or she has been cruel to animals.

"But my son is an animal lover," she insisted.

Kemp released Patrick to his parents.

Based on the probation reports and his own observations, the judge did not consider the boy beyond repair.

But he did want to teach him a lesson.

At Patrick's sentencing a few weeks later, Kemp sent the boy to the county's juvenile detention facility for a few days.

Weeks after a difficult case involving 15-year-old Judith, Judge Kemp — who usually comes across as calm and thoughtful in court — vented back in his chambers:

"She runs around with much older men — she's 15 going on 32 — her parents are dysfunctional, there's meth involved, she's been on standard and intensive probation, outpatient, inpatient. She's manipulative to the max. We're going to find her in an alley someday. I don't want send her to Adobe, but that's where she'll be going when all the other options are gone."

Judith then had cases pending in both prongs of the juvenile-justice system, delinquency (criminal) and dependency (protection from parental abuse and neglect).

Kemp earlier had placed the girl on probation after finding her delinquent following a series of misdemeanors — shoplifting, possession of drug paraphernalia, and other non-violent crimes.

But Judith was out of control.

She continued to run away from the foster-care settings where she had been living temporarily, and she often wound up in impossibly dangerous situations, usually with adult males.

Judith had gotten into methamphetamine and was sexually promiscuous before her 13th birthday. It was something of a miracle she was not dead.

Months earlier, state Child Protective Services officials finally removed the girl from her parents' home after finding extensive evidence of abuse and neglect.

It was not that her parents were beating her. But both were drug abusers with serious mental-health issues, and they would not even pretend to embrace so-called "family reunification" programs offered by the child-welfare agency.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin