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

In reporting this series, New Times staff writer Paul Rubin spent months at the Maricopa County Juvenile Court in downtown Phoenix. He focused on the work of two Superior Court judges, Michael Kemp and Ronald Reinstein, and on their delinquency and dependency calendars, respectively. Delinquency court judges hear cases about minors accused of committing crimes. Dependency court judges hear cases about children who may have been abused or neglected and have the power (see next week's story) to sever a parent's legal rights in so-called "dependency hearings," usually long after the child has become a "ward" of the state. Until July 1, 2008, dependency courts were closed to the public. But Judge Reinstein, who since has retired from the bench, agreed before that date to allow New Times access to his courtroom, with the stipulation that no names or other identifying information be disclosed. Names of juveniles in these stories have been changed, except for those whose criminal cases were transferred to adult court.

JUDGING JUVIES: First in a Series

Mike Kemp had been a Maricopa County Juvenile Court judge for just a few months when he was faced with a particularly momentous decision.

Sitting in front of Kemp in handcuffs was 13-year-old Edgar Valles, all 5-foot-1 and 100 pounds of him, still a year or so from shaving for the first time.

Kemp is a lanky, athletic former prosecutor whose previous job was at the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Now, as a new judge, he had to decide whether to order Valles to adult court to face a first-degree murder charge in the October 2005 Phoenix shooting of a 23-year-old man.

County prosecutors had asked him to "transfer" Valles out of the juvenile system because of the seriousness of the charge. Under Arizona law, they wouldn't even have had to ask Kemp for permission if the boy had been 14.

And if Valles had been 15, he automatically would have been considered a legal adult.

The child earlier had confessed to police to murdering the man after selling him and two other men methamphetamine. Valles had been the middleman (or middle boy) in the botched deal during the wee hours in west Phoenix.

The diminutive Valles had been selling drugs for older guys for some time, in return for money, clothes, food, and his own dope. He was hooked on "sherms," which are joints laced with the dangerous hallucinogen PCP, or angel dust.

Remarkably, Valles had been in Juvenile Court only once before the shooting, as a 9-year-old shoplifter.

A probation officer and a prosecutor had urged Judge Kemp to send the boy up to Superior Court. Otherwise, Valles would exit the juvenile system on his 18th birthday, just four years later.

However, citing the child's age and alleged potential for rehabilitation, psychologist Dr. Stan Cabanski asked the judge to keep Valles in Juvenile.

The boy told Kemp in a letter, "I did not mean for anyone to get hurt that night. It was an accident. I want to tell the victim's family how sorry I am that this happened and how terrible I feel about it. I am sorry from the bottom of my heart."

Perhaps he is.

But the judge decided to treat him as an adult.

"I knew what moving him out [to Superior Court] would mean to his life," Kemp said much later, after an appellate court had upheld his order. "But the law is the law, and the safety of the public is part of that equation. But it's still sad because the boy never should have been in that situation in the first place."

The 13-year-old Valles was the youngest of 564 Arizona juveniles moved to adult court in 2006. (That may provide perspective on the unlikelihood of that St. Johns boy who was 8 when he allegedly murdered his father and a roomer on November 5 ever being sent to adult court.)

Valles later pleaded guilty in Superior Court to second-degree murder and is serving a 17-year sentence. He is incarcerated at a state facility in Tucson, in a section reserved for minors sentenced as adults.

Before he moved to the adult criminal bench last year, Judge Kemp would rule in thousands of other juvenile delinquency cases.

He worked like a black-robed air-traffic controller, trying to keep everyone who appeared on his crowded radar screen as safe as possible in a dangerous world.

Kemp would have final say in the cases involving all but a handful of kids who landed in his court. That handful included children accused of the most serious crimes and those deemed "chronic felony offenders" under the law.

In Arizona and elsewhere these days, juvenile judges don't have the power they once had over the legal futures of the most violent young offenders.

Swayed by ultra-conservative politicians and policymakers, including future Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, the Arizona Legislature and voters wrested key powers from the juvenile judiciary in the early 1990s.