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Arrests Down, But Juvenile Population Surges In Maricopa County Jail

The number of juveniles held in adult jails in Maricopa County has nearly doubled in the past year. That’s according to Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) Deputy Chief Brian Lee, who addressed a juvenile justice committee at the Arizona Legislature on Wednesday.

Lee said there were 92 juveniles currently being held in MCSO jails. Seventy-nine of them have been charged as adults and are awaiting trial. However, Lee said three male juveniles, charged as juveniles, are being held by MCSO for federal authorities.

“We’ve had situations in the past six months that we haven’t seen before, where the U.S. Marshals Office has asked for us to take custody of some of their juveniles because of the type of crimes they’re being charged with,” Lee said.

Lee said the marshals have received “federal orders from judges ordering them into the custody of the Sheriff’s Office.”

He said the Marshals Office told him that no other facility in the state will accept the juveniles.

Lee said MCSO consulted the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office for advice but was told the situation was unprecedented. MCSO believes that because it is being ordered by a federal court to house the juveniles in an adult jail, the agency is acting appropriately, he said.

Several of the youths were charged with homicide on a reservation. “Because they were charged with a dangerous crime, no other facilities would accept them,” Lee said.

He told the committee MCSO has also accepted other juveniles from federal authorities that were charged with aggravated assault.

Challenges Of Shared Facility

Juveniles in MCSO custody are housed in separate units called pods within adult jails. There are two pods for male juveniles and one pod for female juveniles.

All the pods contain multiple levels of juvenile offenders. “Within one pod we have minimums, mediums, maximums and also our highest classification of inmates,” Lee said.

Juveniles being held in adult jails must be kept out of “sight and sound” of adult inmates.

“The challenges we face are the shared facilities," Lee said.

He said it takes an extra toll on MCSO staff to follow this guideline when juveniles have to go to the medical clinic, programming space and visitation space.

Lee told the committee MCSO spends about $4 million annually on its juvenile population. He said the Sheriff’s Office spends $1.75 million for an internal juvenile education system and $2.3 million for the cost of detention officers.

“This equals 62 full-time employees dedicated to these 92 juvenile inmates or 1 percent of the MCSO jail system,” Lee said. 

He noted that the 92 juveniles was a surge in numbers.

“We typically, in the last couple of years, have hovered around 50 to 60,” Lee said of the number of juveniles housed in MCSO on a daily basis.

Questions About Population Increase

State Sen. Tony Navarette asked Lee why the population has gone up.

“The number has gone up and down over the years,” Lee said. “But I do know I have received more phone calls in the last year than I ever have before such as the federal juvenile inmates that I spoke of earlier.”

According to Lee, in the past, other juvenile facilities in the state would be willing to accept the detainees but they are now refusing to house “dangerous offenders.” Lee added MCSO also receives requests from smaller counties that don’t have juvenile facilities to hold their offenders.

Arizona law states that certain crimes and circumstances allow a prosecutor to charge a juvenile as an adult. That charging process affects which facility the juveniles are held in before their trial, as well as where their potential sentence is served.

More Youths In The System

Beth Beringhaus, division chief of juvenile crimes at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said that despite the number of juvenile arrests going down, more youths are ending up in the adult system.

“Last year, Maricopa County committed 96 youth to the department of juvenile corrections while direct filing 207 to adult court,” Beringhaus told the committee.

She said that so far in 2017, the county attorney has filed 184 juveniles to the adult system, adding that she had become increasingly concerned with the trend.

“They’re committing offenses in which we have no choice but to direct file them into adult court,” Beringhaus said of the youth offenders in Maricopa County. “Some of them are first offenders, some of them are youth that have been within the juvenile justice system. About three-quarters of our direct files, maybe more, are armed robberies."

“Our youth are using guns,” Beringhaus said. “And once a gun is involved, it’s a mandatory direct file.”

Beringhaus said the County Attorney’s Office has discretion to direct file juveniles to adult court but she said that seldom happens and she personally reviews all adult court filings.

Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.