Juvenile justice hits minorities hardest Maryvale studied in search of reasons

By Marty Sauerzopf
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 25, 2002

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Tawni Casteel can look around her Maryvale neighborhood and tell you one reason kids may be getting in trouble with the law.

"There aren't a whole lot of activities in this area for them to go and do after school," said Casteel, head of the Marivue Neighborhood Association. "Transportation seems to be an issue. How to get from one place to another. When you're talking about kids, you don't want them going too far away from home."

That accessibility to services in a heavily Hispanic area is one piece of what state court officials believe to be a much larger problem: the continued overrepresentation of minorities in the juvenile justice system.

Arizona is one of nine areas nationwide taking part in the Building Blocks for Youth Initiative, designed to figure out why the juvenile system has disproportionately high percentages of minorities.

The effort, which could take years to complete, is focusing on the Maryvale area of west Phoenix to study a gamut of issues, including neighborhood design, police activity and prosecution decisions, to find potential snags that might favor Anglo kids over minorities as they move through the system.

"Say you have 10 youngsters arrested for the same offense and five are Latino and five are Anglo," said Jesus Diaz, a program specialist with the state Administrative Office of the Courts. "At the arrest level it may seem all 10 are arrested. Then what happens is in detention, maybe three out of five Latinos are detained and one of five Anglos."

'Been around forever'

In Maricopa County, minorities make up 47 percent of the juvenile population yet account for 59 percent of the youths sent to prison, according to a study by the state Supreme Court Commission on Minorities.

Minorities also represent about 57 percent of the inmates at Maricopa County juvenile detention centers and 65 percent of the juveniles tried as adults.

"The problem has been around forever," said Lynn Wiletsky, a program manager in the state Office of the Courts. "We don't have that type of optimism that it's just going to go away. One of the things you have to do is look at the system procedures that lead to the overrepresentation."

The juvenile justice statistics have improved dramatically in Maricopa County over the past 10 years, according to the Commission on Minorities report, which was released during the summer. In Pima County, the numbers have gotten slightly worse, particularly for Hispanics, who make up nearly half of the juveniles sent to state prison while representing just 39 percent of the population.

Project organizers said every agency involved in the justice system, from the police to the prosecutors to defense attorneys to social service providers, must be open to self-examination.

"We are not coming in finger-pointing. It's not a racial profiling project," said attorney James Bell, director of the San Francisco-based Burns Institute that pioneered the Building Blocks program nationally. "We're just saying, 'Are you disquieted by these numbers?'

"Everybody is going to get looked at here. Everybody's going to have a turn in the hot seat," he said.

"Self-introspection can be very painful at times," Wiletsky added.

Making changes

Barbara Marshall, chief of the juvenile crimes division of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, said accusations about unfair treatment of minorities would always be made. But the goal of the Building Blocks program, she said, is to find whether elements of the justice system that may be overlooked need fixing.

"We went out and met with various junior high and high school kids in the Maryvale area," she said.

"Those kids really do have struggles that I don't think most of us faced when we were kids. What can the community do to help prevent them from getting into the criminal justice system?"

And once they are in the system, are changes needed to make sure that they can successfully get out of it, she asked.

One problem can be the bus system. "Is there a bus stop near the treatment center? "Certainly that's a problem if the court has ordered (a juvenile) to go to counseling," she said.

The Building Blocks program began in Seattle. It is being implemented in areas of Illinois, Kansas, San Jose, San Francisco, Arizona and, most recently, Baltimore. Organizers locally hope the focus on the Maryvale area will identify potential improvements that can be implemented in communities across the state.

"Kids are on the streets around here because there's not much else to do," said 16-year-old Maryvale resident Felicia Munoz, whose cousin was recently sent to Juvenile Court on theft charges. "It's no excuse for breaking the law, but there should be places kids can go."

It's those types of changes that the Building Blocks program hopes to identify and help implement.

"The system works, but if you just change little things, that can go a long, long way in making our system much better than what it is now," Diaz said.

"Everybody at the table is interested in talking and finding ways to enhance our system. Everybody is there with a sense of hope and enthusiasm for our justice system."

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