B y D a n H u f f
GOV. FIFE SYMINGTON III and his ilk say we should scrap the juvenile courts all together, exchanging the current system for one of neighborhood centers allowing family, friends and victims to intervene when kids screw up. After three or four screwups, they'd be tried as adults. And once convicted, that's it, slam that ol' Big House door.
Meanwhile, Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Stanley Feldman says the juvenile court system has some problems, but with some tweaking here and there--especially when it comes to dangerous offenders--he predicts it'll continue to do what's right for the majority of kids who run afoul of the law.
Hmmm--whom to believe? A morally and fiscally bankrupt politician who's trying desperately to distract voters from his greed-fueled problems, or a deeply socially conscious justice laboring to improve our traditional system of jurisprudence in a way that values and respects the individual?
Right--who the hell cares.
The truth is, no matter what we as individuals do, or however much we change or don't change the system, the juvenile crime problem won't be going away anytime soon.
Feldman admits it's a real head-banger.
"The problem of juvenile crime frustrates everybody who's dealing with it," he says. "There are so many tragedies out there--kids who shouldn't be the way they are; kids who could be helped but aren't being; kids who need to be punished and put away, and yet they're getting out."
Overall, however, for the vast majority of kids who come in contact with the juvenile courts--nearly 10 percent of Pima County's 98,000 eight- to 17-year-olds in fiscal 1994--the system actually works "quite well."
Huh? If that sounds like pure fantasy in this era of endless reports of drive-by shootings and car-jackings and pointless-though-deadly automatic weapons fire, hey, welcome to the club.
But listen to Feldman's explanation:
"The huge number of cases that come through the juvenile courts would shock you (74,000 referrals, representing 45,000 individuals out of a total statewide population of 585,000 juveniles in fiscal '94). But the great, great majority are children who come through the court system once, twice, or even three times, and then never come back. In other words, they're corrected, disciplined, rehabilitated. The system does work."
So what're Symington and the boys up to with their proposal to scrap the system?
"I'm not sure what they're doing," Feldman says. "Because everything they have in their proposal is already in place, practically. Or getting into place."
He says the Legislature and the courts have been working hard behind the scenes to reform the juvenile justice process.
And, he adds, one of the system's most ludicrous glitches just may have been corrected. In the past, when dealing with the dangerous 10 or 12 percent of juvenile offenders, those who really should be locked up for a long time, Arizona judges may have dished out appropriate sentences only to see offenders released in "a matter of a few weeks or a few months," according to Feldman, due to crowding problems in the state Department of Youth Treatment and Rehabilitation.
In other words, corrections officials, not the sentencing judges, decided when an offender would be released. "And they've been letting them out for the wrong reasons," Feldman says, "including the worst reason of all--we don't have any more beds."
That's stopped now that the Legislature's given judges a determinant sentence law, which is just taking effect, Feldman says.
So we'll be seeing serious juvenile crime take a dramatic nosedive, right?
Feldman says there remains the greater malaise in our society that breeds dangerous kids.
"It's a societal problem, it's a problem of values, it's a problem of families," he says. "The governor and the courts won't be able to solve a lot of those problems." Feldman says he doesn't know whom to blame. "I guess we're all to blame for the changes in society that have produced these kids."
Of course, a statement like that marks Feldman as a liberal, a political costume that's currently about as fashionable as a rat fur coat at a Phoenix Republican women's tea. Feldman makes no apologies, however.
In fact, he takes the liberal line one step further, saying the money we spend on prevention--helping families, educating children, even simple things like keeping swimming pools open at night for teenagers--has direct and measurable effects on the juvenile crime rate.
And while he allows the current conservative proposal to lock up dangerous juvenile offenders in adult prisons may be justified in many cases, he cautions, "For a lot of them, there's still hope. We already have 20,000 people in our prison system, and we can't be imprisoning everybody for life. People get out. And the question is, once they get out, are they better than when they went in?"
Now there's a truly weird concept for the '90s: A society that respects individuals and cares deeply about building better citizens, even when they're difficult and misbehaving.
It's a good thing Stanley Feldman isn't running for governor. He'd get creamed.
Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Stanley Feldman will discuss "Current Problems in the American Legal System; Perceptions and Reality" Monday, October 16, at the first session of the six-session People's Law School, UA College of Law, Speedway Boulevard and Mountain Avenue, Room 146. Tuition is $20 for one or all sessions. For more information call 792-4700.
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