NOTE: National County Government Week is April 6-12. This year’s theme is: Protecting Our Children. This is the fifth of a multi-part series that examines how Pinal County Government works to protect and serve the children in the county.
FLORENCE- Sitting as Presiding Juvenile Court Judge, Gilbert Figueroa can see as many as 80 to 100 Juvenile cases in a week.
Despite the sometimes heavy case load, Judge Figueroa maintains a positive optimism for our future leaders who come through his courtroom.
Figueroa recalls a recent encounter with a young gentleman at a gas station in Casa Grande. The man actually thanked him for placing him on probation.
“I was filling up my car the other day and a young man came up to me at the station and asked ‘are you Judge Figueroa?’ I said ‘yes,’” the Judge remembered. “He said ‘I just want to thank you.’”
“Almost two years ago you put me on probation. I want to thank you for doing that.”
“What happened,” the Judge asked.
“I’m working, doing well and staying out of trouble,” the man responded.
With a wide grin Figueroa said. “That made my day! I don’t know how much better that could have been.”
In a month, Judge Figueroa will be reassigned to hear civil cases. Every few years judges are reassigned by the Presiding Judge to a different section of the Superior Court. Although he is taking a step away from the Juvenile Court, Figueroa feels he has grown as an adjudicator.
“My mindset on juvenile justice has changed to some degree,” Figueroa said recalling his first days as the Juvenile Court’s Presiding Judge. “I knew you had to have compliance with the rules and guidelines, but I came to realize more and more that juvenile justice is about rehabilitation. It’s not just about punishment, although that’s included, but it’s about reeducation.”
Further explaining what he means, Figueroa points to the recent opening of the Juvenile Justice Center on Diversion Dam Road. While the center does detain juveniles, the main focus of the complex is education.
“We in Juvenile Court Services have always said that we have built a detention center around a school. I’m very proud of that. We have a school that is run by an educator and it is accredited by the state. And we have a Detention Facility whose Director and his staff care about helping the kids grow and offer them opportunities to show that growth by acquiring and maintaining levels of compliance and of success.”
Figueroa says he has a lot of empathy for the kids who appear before him. He recognizes that many of them are missing something in their lives and sometimes need a helping hand to get them on the right track.
“Some of these kids, quite frankly, don’t have as whole lot of direction and support. A lot of them do and choose to ignore it. But you have that percentage of kids who don’t have any real direction so we have to give them some structure.” Knowing that the today’s youth have more potential influences thrown at them with everything from the internet to gangs and drugs, Figueroa is not quick to always blame the parents for any child’s misdeeds. Sometimes it takes imagination and a different perspective to understand why the kids react they way they do.
“Even the very best of parents have had kids come through our system,” Figueroa explained. “It isn’t always about the parents. Sometimes it’s a matter of the kids won’t listen or are just doing their own thing. Sometimes it’s the parents that need a little redirection to think out side of the box to reach their kids.”
Majority of Cases in Juvenile Court: Drugs and Gang Related Activity
Figueroa says that many of the cases that reach the bench involve drugs and gang activity. There is no area of the county that is spared, he said. The reach of negative influences is everywhere.
“There is a lot of pressure in school to do bad things,” the Judge said. “It’s now more acceptable to fail classes rather than pass. For some that makes you okay in their eyes.”
Figueroa says that if a kid is involved in a gang there is a good chance they are also involved in drugs and possibly property crimes.
“We are talking motor vehicle theft, burglary and trespassing,” he said.
“They are taking small steps to keep the drugs coming in. Or they are doing something stupid as an initiation rite.”
The prevalence of gang activity has forced Figueroa to enact a “no colors” policy in his courtroom.
“You come dressed in your white tennis shoes with red shoelaces and red belt with khaki pants and your red shirt, I’ll tell you not to dress that way for Court again,” Judge Figueroa says. “Sometimes the parents don’t even know what is going on. I’ve had parents come into the courtroom with their child and they are dressed in colors identified with a gang. The parents had no idea their child was dressed in gang colors. The kids are doing things to hide their activity like wearing pink and light blue caps.
It gives no pleasure to Figueroa to send a child into Youth Justice Center or to the Department of Juvenile Corrections (DOJC). In fact he tries to give the offender a chance at restoring the wrong that they have done. But he says that some do recognize the fact that they have earned their way into the detention and to commitment to the DOJC.
“I always tell those who appear before me, ‘you’re here because you brought yourself here.’ I’ve actually had kids who have said in open court ‘Judge, I’m sending myself to the Department of Juvenile Corrections because you have no choice. You have to send me up there because this is what I have done. I have earned my way there,’” Figueroa said.
“They are repeating what I have told them before. That means it is starting to click for them.”
Figueroa says there needs to be a look back into our past to see another avenue on how to deal with kids who have gone astray.
“There’s a lot to be said for the three ‘R’s’,” he explained. “If I had my perfect world I would do the following things: Ban baggy clothes. Anything associated with rap music I would just throw it away. Anything that had the sounded like it had the word ‘gangsta’ or anything affiliated with ‘gang’ in a title would be gone.”
While he will be leaving the Juvenile Court bench in a month, Figueroa is pleased with the progress all youth programs have made in the past four years. He feels that great strides have been taken to give everyone who comes through his courtroom a chance at redemption.
“My goal was and is to protect children at every opportunity and to give them every chance at succeeding while at the same time making sure that the community is protected as well.”