The local chapter of Little Criminals Who Luck Out was inadvertently started about four years ago.
It works like this: You're a fourteen- year-old kid who burglarizes a house and gets locked up in Adobe Mountain, a state prison for juveniles. After promising to be a good kid, you're paroled. While on parole, you steal a car. You've violated your parole, but this time, you don't go to court. You go free.
This glitch in the criminal justice system has resulted in freedom for an untold number of young criminals.
Officials in the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and state Department of Juvenile Corrections can't say how many. They're too busy blaming each other over who caused the glitch in the first place.
It started sometime in the late Eighties when the County Attorney's Office initiated a policy of refusing to prosecute hundreds of kids who commit crimes while on parole. In a classic Catch-22, the cases were instead referred to the parole board, which wouldn't always revoke parole because the county attorney wouldn't prosecute. In those cases, the kids remained on parole and on the streets, instead of having to pay for their new crimes.
And there are plenty of parole violators. Last year, for example, 102 kids committed crimes considered dangerous enough--like murder, rape, arson--to warrant transfers to adult courts for prosecution. Some of these young bruisers had been on parole for previous crimes. They didn't slip through this crack; they were prosecuted by the County Attorney's Office.
The lucky ones were among the 118 other kids who violated their paroles by committing crimes--like burglary, assault, car theft--that weren't serious enough to warrant their transfers to adult courts.
Nobody knows how many of last year's 118 wound up skating.
It's only been in the past month that prosecutors and parole officials have called a truce and have tried to fix the problem.
Maricopa County is the only county in Arizona that does not take parole offenders back to juvenile court. Of course, Maricopa County also holds most of the state's population.
"This became a political battle between the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections and us over whose responsibility this was," says Wayne Stewart, chief of the juvenile division of the County Attorney's Office.
"It's been an ongoing battle with the County Attorney's Office to get them to take these kids to court," grumbles Carl Fox, chair of the seven-member parole board at Adobe Mountain. "I don't think proving kids guilty or innocent is my job.
"If I'm a juvenile out on parole and I commit a crime, it's not the responsibility of an administrative parole review board, in my opinion, to make a determination of innocence or guilt. That's the responsibility of the court."
As usual, money woes get the blame. Before the turf war started, all counties required kids who committed crimes while on parole to go back into juvenile court for trials.
But trials cost money. And in Maricopa County, these pimple-faced parolees were putting an extra burden on an already burdened court system. Besides, as underage parolees, they were wards of the state Department of Corrections. Why not let the state prison officials handle the little thugs?
Stewart says the county prosecutors wanted to "get out of the business" of prosecuting young parolees whose new crimes didn't pose enough of a danger to society to warrant prosecution in adult courts.
And so about four years ago, Stewart decided to decline prosecution of little car thieves, burglars and shoplifters. He says he figured the parole board at Adobe Mountain could process these repeat offenders just as well as the county's overwhelmed juvenile courts.
His reasoning: Paroled juveniles are wards of the state corrections department until they are eigthteen. Therefore, they are subject to exactly the same sentences from the parole board--if their paroles were revoked--as they would get from juvenile court.
"It's a total waste of the taxpayer's money to retry these kids," he says. "We could try them ten times and the disposition would be the same."
But he never dreamed that some little thugs would walk.
He says he just learned about the problem last November, when a court commissioner wrote him an angry letter. The commissioner said a parole officer advised him to release a kid who had just committed an armed robbery and a serious traffic violation. Since the boy was on parole, the commissioner wanted to send him to Adobe Mountain for a parole-revocation hearing. But the parole officer told the commissioner that it would be a wasted trip--the kid would be released by the parole board because the county attorney had declined prosecution.
Juvenile-corrections officials have a reason for being cautious: The state is scurrying to ensure fair treatment for juvenile delinquents in the face of a pending federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed by an inmate of a Tucson juvenile prison, contends among many other things that parole- revocation hearings are violating the youngsters' legal rights of due process.
Stewart says Sam Lewis (the corrections director when the suit was filed) "wanted us to prosecute all of his juvenile-parole revocations and that way we would at our expense be providing the kid counseling and due process through a trial. I told him we weren't going to do that. I told him: `It's your legal responsibility to provide revocation proceedings.'"
Of course, parole board chair Carl Fox sees things differently. "I personally am concerned about due process," he says. "Where does the due process come in? That's the whole issue. They [the courts and County Attorney's Office] are the judicial branch of government. Where do their responsibilities lie in that situation? Is this fair for the kid?"
Stewart says the problem is now "cured" because the prosecutors agreed last month to evaluate the police reports of kids who commit crimes while on parole. The prosecutors are supposed to tell the parole board whether the evidence is solid enough to warrant revoking parole and sending the kid back to the juvenile slammer at Adobe Mountain.
"As far as I know, they're proceeding with the system," says Stewart.
But Fox says the system isn't in place yet. "Maybe when the process starts, and we have legal advice, there will be a big change," says Fox.
But maybe not. An assistant county attorney assigned to the juvenile division says that although the head honchos have signed a truce, the troops are not willing to cooperate. "Although they've shaken hands with General Schwarzkopf, that's not gonna help, see, because there's still a ground battle," says the assistant county attorney, who asked not to be identified. "Some of the people in the juvenile corrections department still want us to prosecute before they revoke paroles."
"It's been an ongoing battle with the County Attorney's Office to get them to take these kids to court."
"It's a total waste of the taxpayer's money to retry these kids.