Two legislative panels on Thursday passed four bills to give judges more authority over juvenile cases and ease laws on young sex offenders.
After tearful testimony from families, warnings from prosecutors and support from judges, the state Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee narrowly approved Senate Bill 1365, which undoes what the Legislature implemented 10 years ago to get tougher on teen criminals.
Democrats joined committee Chairwoman Linda Gray, RGlendale, to pass the bill, which would require criminal court judges to consider whether certain young offenders should be sent back to juvenile court.
Under current law, county prosecutors can “direct file” some juveniles into the adult court system without a hearing.
“It’s a process that creates hard feelings, a greater chance for error, a greater chance for misunderstanding,” said retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Foreman, who presided over more than 700 juvenile transfer hearings during his time on the bench.
“If you send a juvenile to adult court, you take a greater risk that you will create an adult criminal who will end up creating more victims, committing more crimes,” he told the panel.
Voters in 1996 allowed teens 15 and older to be prosecuted in adult court for violent and repetitive offenses. The Legislature broadened the law to include additional crimes, allow 14-year-olds to face adult consequences and let prosecutors file the cases directly in adult court.
Voters were responding to a dramatic increase in violent juvenile crime, which by 1996 was on its way down.
Mark Faull, a special assistant in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said legislative hearings at the time exposed cases where juvenile court judges gave violent teens too many chances. He said the bill would be a step backward.
“Your bill affects far more than sex offenders,” Faull said. “I would urge you not to make a mistake and return to a system that didn’t work.”
A Chandler mother and a Mesa grandmother testified that their teens have been placed in group therapy with adult rapists, forced to live in homeless shelters and hammered by harsh sex-offender probation terms that will prevent them from having a family or a normal life.
“Where is the justice in this system when we took all the power away from judges and gave it to prosecutors?” said Nance Daley, whose adopted son Garrett listened from the back of the hearing room. “Why take away his entire life?”
Sen. Chuck Gray, R-Mesa, a former Mesa police officer, said the bill was too broad and did not address the probationary problems that concern Daley and other families.
“This bill should’ve been narrowed down,” Gray said. “When you take the emotion out of the bill, the bill doesn’t fix the problem.”
The committee gave unanimous approval to Senate Bill 1628, which defines a “youthful sex offender” as a firsttime, nonviolent offender, and requires them to be placed in treatment with teens of similar age and maturity level who committed similar offenses.
Both bills now go to the full Senate for debate.
In the House, two measures to require annual probation reviews for young sex offenders and allow longer supervision for them in the juvenile system won unanimous support in the Judiciary Committee led by Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Mesa.
But Maricopa County sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, whose office opposes the bills, said they may be unworkable without legislation expanding jurisdiction of the juvenile courts.
Teens under 18 can still receive treatment with other juveniles, even if they’re prosecuted in adult court. Parents and probation officers are concerned about the abrupt transition that occurs on their 18th birthday, when they are thrust into adult treatment, thrown out of juvenile housing and may lose other rehabilitative aspects of the juvenile system.
The bills are part of a package introduced by Gray and Republicans Sen. Karen Johnson of Mesa and Rep. Rick Murphy of Glendale, to improve treatment for young sex offenders now prosecuted as adults and subject to lifetime probation and registration.