In Maricopa County, Juveniles Are Often Held In Adult Jail

Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2017 - 7:09am
Updated: Wednesday, February 1, 2017 - 2:00pm

(Photo by Jimmy Jenkins - KJZZ)
Dallas Wyatt was held in an adult jail as a juvenile because of the serious nature of the charges against him
(Photo by Jimmy Jenkins - KJZZ)
Juveniles in the Lower Buckeye Jail are shackled to their desks during continuing education programming

When Dallas Wyatt was just 16-years-old, he was charged with a serious crime: a drive by shooting. Police took him out of school and put him in jail.

"As a young person, I thought coming to jail would just be sitting around for a few months and they’d let me go," Wyatt said. "I’ve been sitting around for a couple years now and that’s not the case.”

It’s been almost two years since he was charged and Wyatt is still waiting to stand trial for the crimes he says he didn’t commit.

When he turned 18, Wyatt was moved to the Towers Jail in Phoenix. But most of his time behind bars was spent just down the road at another adult facility called the Lower Buckeye Jail. In Maricopa County, juvenile offenders that are charged as adults, like Wyatt, are detained at the Lower Buckeye Jail in a separate section from the adult population.

Lower Buckeye Jail

Deputy Chief Brian Lee is responsible for the oversight of several jails in Maricopa County. He stands in the day room at the Lower Buckeye Jail watching as two guards make their rounds. It's an open area surrounded by two floors of tiny two-man cells.

“We refer to this as a podular remote type of a housing system," Lee said. There are open showers, some tables, phones for inmates to make calls and a forlorn basketball court. It is sparse, dirty, grey and pretty bleak.

Down a long corridor in the juvenile classroom young offenders sit at computers, beneath faux windows painted with a mountain skyline. They are working on continuing education programming and some of them are hoping to earn their GED. They have to type with one hand because their other hand is handcuffed to the desk.

Challenges Of Sight And Sound Separation

There are on average about 70 juveniles held in the Lower Buckeye Jail on a daily basis. They’re 15-to-17-years-old, mostly male and a majority of them are Hispanic.

When juveniles are housed in an adult jail like this, they aren’t supposed to be able to hear or see adult offenders. Chief Lee said his staff does the best they can to ensure that separation.

"We have one medical clinic here," Chief Lee said. "We have certain parts of the facility that we have to get juveniles into and then we need to get adults into, so it poses quite the challenge.”

Dallas Wyatt said he always felt safe at Lower Buckeye, but he did come into contact with adult offenders. "Most of the time they would try speak to us," Wyatt said. "They would ask us our name and what we were in for - stuff like that."

The separation policy is referred to as “Sight and Sound” and it’s federally mandated by the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. Beth Rosenberg with Children’s Action Alliance said the intent of the law is to protect impressionable young minds.

"Youth are not little adults," Rosenberg said. "They are actually youth who whose brains are developing and I think that any adult contact with them influences their behavior or could influence their behavior."

Impact Of Incarceration

Every day in the United States there are approximately 20,000 juveniles held in detention facilities. The average length of stay is about 20 days, but research shows even a short time behind bars can have a major impact on the lives of youths. One of the risks for juveniles in an adult jail is being influenced by older, chronic offenders.

As a public defender, attorney Mike Traher Jr. represented several juveniles held at the Lower Buckeye Jail. "These kids don’t have any role models or any real support," Traher said. "So if you see somebody who looks cool or is nice to you or seems like he’s wise, you’re going to want to follow that type of advice.”

Traher said being housed in the adult facility caused behavioral changes in his clients. “I think they feel like they need to be more grown up and tougher and they put on a layer of this type of toughness. But they’re scared kids.

Legal Mandate For Violent Offenders

Traher said he’d much rather see his juvenile clients held in a juvenile jail. "There’s more human interaction. I think there’s greater interaction with family members. It’s not as dreadful - it’s different than the Lower Buckeye Jail," he said.

But Arizona law prevents juveniles charged as adults with a violent felony offense from being jailed in a juvenile facility.

Beth Rosenberg said she thinks the courts should be given more discretion to keep juveniles awaiting trial out of adult jails. “And certainly if kids could be held in the juvenile detention facility that is more appropriate facility because it’s different interactions you need to have with those kids and different programming,” she said.

Potential For Policy Review

There seems to be some willingness by the county to review the detention policy. Newly elected Sheriff Paul Penzone said he’s been in talks with several state Supreme Court Justices about juvenile detention as he explores the issue.

"I think the best answers truly come from doing the research and knowing what you’re speaking about and best practices. I’m not there yet," Penzone said. "But we must ensure the safety of anyone who’s within our custody.”

This week, Dallas Wyatt will finally stand trial. He said the time behind bars has transformed him. “I learned a lot about patience. I learned a lot about life - just coming from being a little boy to becoming a man.”

Wyatt said when you grow up in jail – you grow up quick.

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