JRSA Forum. September 2013. Volume 31, Number 3.

Consent Decrees and Juvenile Corrections in Arizona: What Happens When Oversight Ends

Melanie Taylor, Assistant Professor at
the University of Nevada-Reno
Scott H. Decker, Foundation Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at
Arizona State University
Charles Katz, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at
Arizona State University1

1 The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Justice. This research was supported by the National Institute of Justice, 2010-JB-FX-0014. The project received the approval of the Arizona State University Institutional Review Board, #1101005915; 1/31/2011.

Extensive criminal justice research is devoted to understanding the behavior of criminals, but much less attention is focused on the behavior of criminal justice agencies when they fail to follow the law. The response of correctional facilities that have violated the civil rights of inmates is particularly important, as approximately 14 million adults and 70,000 juveniles are currently incarcerated in the United States (Glaze & Parks, 2012; Sickmund, Sladky, Kang, & Puzzanchera, 2011).

When criminal justice agencies violate the law, one mechanism for addressing misconduct is a consent decree.2 The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) of 1980, for example, permits the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) to conduct investigations of correctional facilities suspected of violating civil rights of confined persons and bring lawsuits against them (Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Summary, 2008). Since the Act's inception, 430 agencies in 49 states have been investigated for severe misconduct and poor conditions. The majority of lawsuits (92%) that are filed against correctional facilities by the USDOJ result in consent decrees, as they are more cost effective for both sides and less confrontational (National Council on Disability, 2005). Despite the importance of such legal actions by USDOJ and the consequences for many of the least powerful and hidden segments of society, there have been no independent examinations of what happens after a consent decree is lifted and a correctional agency returns to "business as usual."

The history of corrections (Cohen, 1985; Pisciotta, 1996; Rothman, 1971) suggests that such a study is important. Much of this history has been the "failure of good intentions," dating from the earliest experiments with prisons in the early 19th century and later efforts at the reformation of delinquents in Houses of Detention (Pisciotta, 1996; Platt, 1977). Institutional change is often temporary, and the inherent characteristics of "total institutions" (Goffman, 1961) quickly overwhelm the well-intentioned but short-lived efforts of reformers.

To examine these issues, we conducted a two-year study of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections' (ADJC) response to federal oversight after ADJC was found to be in violation of the law. We reviewed 43 internal ADJC documents, nearly 100 newspaper articles, and 41 government documents. Forty- six individuals, including current and former employees of ADJC, community advocates, judges, and other juvenile court representatives, were also interviewed for this study. The overarching goal of our research was to examine how agencies respond to CRIPA lawsuits. Our study provides a unique opportunity to examine what happens after federal investigations are settled and federal oversight is lifted.

Conditions Leading to Federal Intervention

The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) was established in 1968 and operated both the adult and juvenile correctional systems. Johnson v. Upchurch in 1986 was the first lawsuit against the state regarding conditions of confinement for juveniles. An investigation revealed that conditions of confinement were unsatisfactory, resulting in major changes in how juveniles were treated. The Johnson lawsuit led to a consent decree that placed greater emphasis on the provision of services and education to juveniles and led to improved health care and housing. Furthermore, it led to the separation of juvenile from adult corrections, and the formation of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections in 1990. In 1997 the consent decree expired and federal monitoring ceased after the ADJC reformed.

The change in conditions, however, was temporary. Just five years after the consent decree was lifted, three juveniles committed suicide at a single ADJC facility between April of 2002 and March of 2003, resulting in ADJC having one of the highest juvenile facility suicide rates in the country (Acosta, 2004). The ADJC was investigated under CRIPA for alleged violations of physical abuse, poor living conditions, inadequate education, poor mental health treatment, improper use of disciplinary confinement, insufficient supervision, and failure to prevent suicides of youth in custody. The USDOJ concluded that these deficiencies violated the rights of the juveniles in confinement. To avoid a lawsuit, ADJC entered into a consent decree with the USDOJ (Memorandum of Agreement between the United States Department of Justice and the State of Arizona Concerning Adobe Mountain School, Black Canyon School, and Catalina Mountain School, 2004).

Sustainability of Reforms

By the time the CRIPA lawsuit was dismissed in 2007, official reports documented improved conditions, but it was unclear whether the ADJC maintained the remedial measures subsequently in a time of severe statewide budget cuts. The Arizona Auditor General began a two-year examination of the ADJC in 2007, in part to review the conditions cited in the CRIPA decree (Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections Sunset Factors, 2009). It found that the ADJC had since been "performing well" in previously deficient areas (e.g., suicide prevention and abuse). Changes that had been sustained since the USDOJ investigation included: increased training of staff and monitoring of suicidal juveniles, resulting in no deaths after 2003 and fewer suicide attempts; a reduction in youth-on-youth violence; and an improved grievance process for abuse against staff and institution of a zero tolerance for abuse policy.

Many of these changes were the result of multiple administrators being hired from outside of the Arizona correctional system. Michael Branham, who was hired as ADJC Director in 2003, had a career in law enforcement but minimal correctional experience. Director Branham fired employees who had abused juveniles; improved communication between departments; administrators, and line staff; and made physical changes to the institutions (e.g., "suicide proofed" lights, doors, vents, and beds) that made it easier for staff to ensure the juveniles' safety.

He invested significant resources in the Investigations and Inspections Unit (I&I) and a Quality Assurance Team (QA), two changes required by the CRIPA monitors, and made them an essential aspect of the CRIPA reforms. Recognizing the implications of the Johnson v. Upchurch lawsuit, Director Branham hired former law enforcement officers to monitor both staff and juveniles to ensure the safety of the juveniles and that staff remained compliant with policies. Security cameras were installed in part to confirm staff reports (e.g., room checks being completed at appropriate intervals). Staff reported that while the implementation of internal controls at times made them fearful, these practices have been a necessary aspect of reforming the agency over the long term.

In July 2011, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer appointed Charles Flanagan as ADJC Director. Prior to his appointment, Director Flanagan was the Deputy Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC). This was of concern to several ADJC employees and county court representatives because of the problems that resulted when ADC officers were transferred to work with juveniles. Reactions to Director Flanagan have been mixed. Because Director Flanagan has a strong corrections background, many perceive him to be a welcome change from Director Branham's punitive tactics, but he has been criticized for cuts made to the agency's budget.

Directions for the Future

There is clear evidence that after the lawsuit resulting in a consent decree under CRIPA in 2004 the agency changed numerous aspects of its management and culture. The question now is, why? One possibility is that the agency wanted to maintain legitimacy within the institutional environment. Institutional theory suggests that when organizations depend on their external environments for resources, they will reform to avoid losing those critical resources. In the case of the ADJC, critical resources included funding and juveniles.

Few of those we interviewed suggested that the agency reformed because it recognized that abuse, deprivation of civil rights, and policy violations were pervasive; however, some did make direct links between the CRIPA-induced changes and ADJC concerns over "organizational legitimacy." More specifically, unless the Director was able to reestablish the confidence of the county courts that the ADJC was a safe and rehabilitative place for juveniles, the courts would find other ways to take care of the juveniles. Although only a few ADJC employees suggested that reforms occurred because of pressures to maintain legitimacy, those external to the agency believed that this was a key reason.

Representatives from county courts suggested that during the period of suicides and start of the CRIPA investigation, judges from numerous counties sent fewer youths to ADJC because they were fearful for the juveniles' safety (see Figure 1). Statements such as, "many judges stopped sending kids there because they were being sent to die" and "there was almost like an in-formal agreement between the courts that they were not going to send kids to ADJC" suggest that as counties became more aware of abuses, their belief that ADJC was a legitimate resource substantially diminished.

Figure 1. Number of Commitments to Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections (ADJC) versus Number of Juvenile Court Cases


Note. Only the seven counties that sent the highest number of juveniles are included in this graph. Both ADJC commitments and juvenile court cases are per 10,000 juveniles. Also, the number of county court cases was normalized by dividing the number of cases each year by 30.

As a result of the changes made through CRIPA, however, the perceptions of those in the environment improved. As one respondent noted, "department policies, practices, and culture appear to have improved above and beyond the first lawsuit," suggesting that the changes that should have been institutionalized during the first lawsuit and consent decree (filed in 1986) had been sustained following the second lawsuit and consent decree (filed in 2004). But despite the improved perception in several counties, many remained concerned because they had witnessed the agency "reform" during Johnson and remained skeptical as to whether it was capable of long-term reform. It was only when the CRIPA investigation occurred and resources to the agency declined that the agency made legitimate reform attempts.


One of the purposes of our two-year study was to examine the impact of the external environment on juvenile corrections. We found that for ADJC, the media, state legislature, civil rights organizations, USDOJ, and others had a profound impact on institutional reform. The impetus for reform was driven by external stakeholders who exposed (or who were exposed to) a series of serious problems within ADJC that were not being addressed by the institution. Many of the reforms made, including the CRIPA, were a direct result of local investigative journalism. Sovereigns, such as the local media, have the capacity to bestow and withdraw legitimacy on public institutions such as ADJC, and can single-handedly expose severe problems that are not being addressed. In the case of ADJC, the end result was the loss of organizational legitimacy. Counties and the state withdrew resources (real and perceived), and the Department of Justice instituted CRIPA. Prior to this, ADJC staff, managers, and leadership were seen as uninterested, if not resistant, to organizational change and reform. Our findings suggest that juvenile corrections institutions can avoid the kind of organizational failure experienced by ADJC (i.e., losing legitimacy) by instituting formal mechanisms that allow them to obtain feedback and learn from their external environment on a regular basis. This does not necessarily require the organization to engage in a formal "bargaining" process with external stakeholders.

Our findings also suggest that while the external environment (e.g., the media) can play a major role in initiating reform, it is not necessarily sufficient for meaningful change. In the case of ADJC, years of neglect and mismanagement led to chronic levels of misconduct and the development of an organization that tolerated misbehavior. It was only through formalized external control and oversight through CRIPA that deep organizational reform was even possible.

CRIPA also mandated transparency through required data collection, site visits, and public reports by outside experts. This provided much-needed information to the public, key stakeholders, state legislators, the Department of Justice, and others who would not normally be permitted a detailed, inside view of the juvenile institution and its problems. It was only after the outside experts gave their approval, and external stakeholders agreed with their positive assessment, that ADJC regained legitimacy. Our findings strongly support the notion that promoting and instilling a culture of transparency is an important component to maintaining a long-term and sustainable organizational change.


The ADJC has sustained many of the requirements of the CRIPA consent decree, even when confronted with drastic budget cuts, for two reasons. First, counties expressed grave concern that juveniles were being placed in abusive conditions while at the ADJC. They committed fewer juveniles to the agency and instead treated them in their communities. If this practice had continued for long, the ADJC would have faced even more severe budget reductions from the governor. Second, as Director Branham recognized that the agency was losing legitimacy in the eyes of various agencies across the state, he implemented both punitive and preventive controls that would finally prevent the deprivation of juveniles' civil rights. While line staff felt that these controls are overly punitive toward staff and prevent them from providing rehabilitation, administrators have found them effective in ensuring the safety and security of the juveniles.


Acosta, A. (2004). CRIPA investigation of Adobe Mountain School and Black Canyon School in Phoenix, Arizona; and Catalina Mountain School in Tucson, Arizona. U.S. Department of Justice.Retrieved December 17, 2010, from http://www.justice.gov/crt/split/documents/ariz_findings.pdf.

Civil Rights of Incarcerated Persons Summary. 2008. Department of Justice Activities Under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act Fiscal Year 2008. Available at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/spl/documents/split_cripa08.pdf.

Cohen, S. (1985). Visions of Social Control. Oxford: Polity Press.

Glaze, L., & Parks, E. (2012). Correctional populations in the United States, 2011. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Available at http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus11.pdf.

Goffman, I. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situations of mental patients and other inmates. New York: Doubleday.

Memorandum of Agreement between the United States Justice Department and the State of Arizona concerning Adobe Mountain School, Black Canyon School and Catalina Mountain School. 2004. Available at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/spl/documents/split_az_schools_moa.pdf.

National Council on Disability. (2005). The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons. Available at The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons. Available at http://www.ncd.gov/publications/2005/08082005.

Pisciotta, A. (1996). Benevolent repression: Social control and the American reformatory/prison movement. New York: NYU Press.

Platt, A. (1977). The child savers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rothman, D. (1971). The discovery of the asylum. New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Sickmund, M., Sladky, T.J., Kang, W., & Puzzanchera, C. (2011). Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Available at http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezajcs/default.asp.


1 The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Justice. This research was supported by the National Institute of Justice, 2010-JB-FX-0014. The project received the approval of the Arizona State University Institutional Review Board, #1101005915; 1/31/2011.

2In this context, a consent decree is an agreement between a state (Arizona) and the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the conditions of confinement and the steps that will be taken to address those (deficient) conditions.