Locked in Masquerade

One simple fact has gone unmentioned during the recent furor about the overcrowding crisis at Arizona's juvenile corrections facilities: The agency responsible for administering those facilities helped manufacture the crisis.

State records show that even as U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bilby considered sanctioning the state for overcrowding its juvenile centers, the state Department of Juvenile Corrections was abruptly canceling contracts with private juvenile facilities that could have handled many youths crowded into the state-run facilities.

After canceling those contracts, some of which had been in effect for years, the department steered juvenile detention business worth potentially millions of dollars to another private contractor--a contractor that employs two former state officials as executives.

The contract juggling does not appear to have been an attempt to quickly solve the overcrowding problem. Even when the new agreement was in force, the juvenile corrections department did not immediately use many of the private beds available to ease the overcrowding of state detention facilities.

And as it manipulated contracts and aggravated overcrowding, the juvenile corrections department stretched the limits of, and may have violated, state purchasing laws.

Overcrowding is hardly an unknown condition at Arizona's juvenile centers. In 1993, Arizona agreed to limit the numbers of young offenders housed in its three juvenile corrections institutions. That agreement--in legal terms, a consent decree--was signed to settle a lawsuit over unconstitutional conditions at the juvenile facilities.

Simple head counts at the juvenile institutions made it clear early this year that the state was violating the consent decree. Unless there was quick action to ease the overcrowding at the state's three juvenile institutions, the state would almost certainly face court sanctions.

But there was no action. Instead, the juvenile corrections department continued not to use private space that was available to alleviate overcrowding in state juvenile institutions.

It is difficult to know precisely what motives the Symington administration might have for allowing--perhaps even encouraging--a federal-state confrontation over Arizona's juvenile justice system.

But there certainly has been confrontation.
After Judge Bilby ruled that the state had violated the consent decree, the Department of Juvenile Corrections immediately stopped accepting new offenders that juvenile court judges had committed to state care.

Legislators, bureaucrats, judges, prosecutors and the governor began arguing loudly over competing plans for juvenile justice reform. The crisis even managed to shatter the previously rock-solid alliance between two tough-on-crime Republicans: Governor J. Fife Symington III and Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley.

Last week, Romley filed suit, hoping to force Symington to order juvenile corrections to accept young offenders committed to state institutions. Symington has harshly criticized the suit and Romley's motivations for filing it.

The political struggle between Symington and Romley, when combined with the Department of Juvenile Corrections' manipulation of contracts to aggravate overcrowding, has potentially devastating consequences.

For one thing, the overcrowding crisis has greatly increased the likelihood that dangerous youths who should be removed from society for treatment or rehabilitation will instead remain free.

"If these kids get pushed out into the community because there are no beds available, then you're playing Russian roulette, not only with their lives, but with the lives of innocent victims in the community," says Maricopa County Presiding Juvenile Judge John Foreman.

"I think that is reprehensible."

Arizona's juvenile courts commit more than 100 young offenders a month to the juvenile corrections department for incarceration in the state's three detention facilities--Adobe Mountain Juvenile Institution, Black Canyon Juvenile Institution and Catalina Mountain Juvenile Institution.

The length of stay varies widely, from a few weeks to years, depending on the type of offense committed. But all children must be released no later than their 18th birthday.

After spending a few months in the state institutions, many youths are transferred to private residential treatment centers, opening up the state's institutional space for newly committed youth. The private centers are expected to offer whatever additional supervision and treatment offenders might need before returning to their communities.

At least, that is how the system worked until late last year. That is when Pauline H. Don Carlos started wondering why the beds at her residential treatment center in the small town of Dewey were going unused.

Don Carlos was perplexed. She had a contract with the Department of Juvenile Corrections to provide juvenile counseling and rehabilitation services in her secure facility.

"The trend was for a long time that we would have eight or nine girls from the department," Don Carlos says.

But the department suddenly quit sending girls to Mingus Mountain Estate Residential Center, one of the few private facilities in the state with locked rooms that could house violent or escape-prone offenders.

"They have not placed any girls with us since about November," Don Carlos says. The facility could hold more than 40 girls and has eight locked cells.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty