In 1996, the passage of Proposition 102 paved the way for Arizona children as young as 14 to be prosecuted as adults—even for non-violent crimes such as sexually inappropriate behavior. Since then, many juveniles have ended up in jail right alongside adult sexual predators.
While there, they are 50 percent more likely to be assaulted with a weapon and seven times more likely to commit suicide, according to the National Juvenile Justice Network. Upon their release, they are 34 percent more likely than youths who serve time in a juvenile facility to be re-arrested for violent or other crimes. For children who commit sexual offenses, more than 90 percent of arrests represent a one-time event that never recurs.
Edna Hawes of Mesa has worked tirelessly to prevent youths from being tried, sentenced and incarcerated within the adult system. Despite a visual impairment, she was a key player last spring in the passage of Arizona Senate Bill 1628, which requires that youth sex offenders be placed in treatment programs that meet national professional ethics standards and include other offenders of a similar age and maturity level.
Mother of six, grandmother to 27 and the recent Campaign for Youth Justice and National Juvenile Justice Network “Mothers of Distinction” Award winner, Edna Hawes talks about why she became a grassroots advocate for change.
Your family’s experience within the system started all of this. When did you decide to take action?
When I became appalled. I don’t know any word that does any better than that. My grandson was in a very serious situation in treatment with older men…and it’s terrible. I’ve always been a political activist, you might say. As a young mother, I was always been involved in what was going on in the schools. I don’t have the eyesight that allows me to read a lot, but I do have the ability to connect people together.
What are some examples of sex-offense behaviors that might land juveniles in adult jails?
One case that was distinctly different was two brothers [with] some physical disabilities. They touched each other. And because they touched each other, it became an offense. One of the brothers is in jail. It caused tremendous trauma for the family. Or 14-year-old boys going around pinching young women on their breasts. Whatever the victim says, “he touched me here, he touched me there” whatever…they can all become [sex offense] charges.
Sexual misconduct in any form can be devastating for the victim.
I do not belittle the victim. I have 13 granddaughters. I am as concerned for the safety and well-being of my granddaughters as I am for what got me involved in this thing.
What led up to the change within our system to prosecute youths as adults?
The proposition on the ballot [resulted from] the intense gang violence that we were having in the ’90s. And we all thought, “Great!” I don’t know how I voted, but I can guess that I probably voted yes, thinking that good judgment would be used, and that [only] those who did the very severe and violent assaults would be charged as adults.
So is the lesson that we should be careful about what we vote for?
That’s right. All these youths we are talking about are now registered sex offenders. They will be for a lifetime. The laws were created to protect [people from] the serious offenses. But in doing so, it has taken away allowances for the level of offense.
So Arizona Senate Bill 1628 will allow more age-appropriate consequences and treatment for juveniles?
We want juveniles to stay in the juvenile court program so they can be given considerations that juveniles traditionally have been given.
What do you hope parents will understand from reading about you?
One of the things about our family, and about Edna Hawes, is that I’ve always been interested in the fact that we live in this wonderful land that allows us to pursue life with liberty. I grew up in that atmosphere. And the only thing it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.
This interview was published Oct. 1, 2007 by multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint.