One Angry Man

As anyone who works there knows, the Juvenile Justice Center is a locale in dire need of distractions. Morale at the cozy complex of courtrooms on NW 33rd Street is running low these days, thanks to a rash of highly publicized crimes against tourists. While prosecutors ship more and more teen criminals downtown to be tried as adults, some state legislators have begun to question whether the mission of rehabilitating hard-core cases should be scrapped altogether.

Little surprise, then, that juvenile court regulars have tuned in to the soap opera unfolding before them, a series that might be titled The Many Transfers of Judge Tom Petersen. Sadly, this is one soap that could forebode real tragedy for the children of Miami's inner city.

You've probably heard of Petersen. In five years as a juvenile court judge, he has been the star of countless articles and editorials. He has appeared on local and national TV shows to discuss solutions to delinquency. And he has single-handedly exposed many of the Dade juvenile justice system's most shameful secrets. Lazy social workers. Bogus programs. Craven administrators. By all accounts a brilliant and compassionate man, Petersen traces his obsession with salvaging at-risk kids to 25 years of work in Miami's vast ghettos. Unfortunately, the judge can also be -- in the words of one of his closest allies -- "a real asshole."

Many of those at the Juvenile Justice Center believe it was Petersen's abrasive personal style that led Chief Judge Leonard Rivkind to transfer him this past month. In January Petersen is slated to move from the delinquency division to juvenile court's other half, the dependency division, where the issues are child abuse and custody, not youth crime.

In keeping with the spirit of melodrama, the precise terms of the transfer very much depend upon who you speak to, and at what time of the day. Since news of the move broke last month, the rumor mill has been working overtime, with clerks, bailiffs, even judges trading updates on when and why the enfant terrible of delinquency will bid adieu.

Rivkind has repeatedly insisted that the move is routine. "I have been mandated to come up with a plan to rotate judges," he says. "Judge Petersen is the only one in juvenile who has not served in another division. There is nothing unique about this at all. If you ask him, I'm sure he will confirm to you that we discussed this move months ago over lunch."

Not quite.
Petersen says he remembers lunching with Rivkind but claims the issue of moving was never raised. Typically, he has not been shy in providing his own theory: "It's pretty apparent to me that I've ruffled the feathers of those who advocate the status quo." Specifically, Petersen says the timing of Rivkind's decision leaves him with little doubt that the transfer was intended to silence his whistle-blowing. This past August, he points out, he accused members of the powerful Criminal Justice Council of violating the state's Sunshine Law by approving funding for juvenile programs without holding a public meeting.

Without consulting Rivkind, who serves on the council, Petersen sent a complaint to the State Attorney's Office. (Because State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle is also on the council, the matter has been assigned to a special prosecutor in West Palm Beach.) When the council finally convened in September, Petersen showed up, hoping to explain his actions. He says Rivkind chose to tell him of the transfer right then and there, a few minutes before Petersen addressed the group.

Administrative Juvenile Judge Ralph Person, Petersen's immediate supervisor, sounds totally bemused by the hubbub. "I'm incapable of gagging Tom Petersen," he says. "He does his own thing and I wouldn't have it any other way. This move is not going to silence him. He's just moving across the hall to dependency. He'll have the same office, same staff, same courtroom, probably. If we wanted to silence him, we'd transfer him out of juvenile altogether. Besides, this is something Tom has known about for months, because I told all of the judges we were going to rotate. In fact, several months ago Tom came to me demanding to be transferred out of delinquency."

Even neutral parties, however, see the move as more than coincidental. "Are they moving Tom to quiet him?" ponders Seymour Gelber, Miami Beach mayor and former juvenile judge. "I think that Lenny Rivkind feels that the change would be good, in that Petersen does create an aura of discontent around himself, and moving him to dependency might give him a chance to kind of slow down and become more reflective and cooperative."

Two weeks ago Petersen met with Rivkind to request a postponement until he could complete his work on delinquency issues with high-ranking state and county officials. Rivkind agreed to consider delaying the move for 90 days. The next day Petersen told a few staffers at juvenile court that he was likely to remain in delinquency. Word spread. Two hours later he received a phone call on the bench. It was Rivkind, who gruffly explained the distinction between taking an issue under advisement and actually okaying it.

The next afternoon Petersen received a message informing him that an official from Rivkind's office was asking questions about the TROY Community Academy, a school for delinquents Petersen helped launch. Furious at what he took to be an act of retribution, Petersen hastily announced a press conference to defend the program's honor. Again, news of the dispute traveled the grapevine. Within the hour judges Person and Rivkind had phoned Petersen to discourage him from holding the press conference. Petersen invited reporters to his chambers to decry the situation, anyway.

It was an overreaction, says Rivkind. "This was not a study or an evaluation; we just called to find out what responsibility the court has in connection with this program," the chief judge explains. "We have concerns about security and things of that nature."

The more pressing issue, for those who work in juvenile court, is whether Petersen's radical ideas about reform will ever be taken seriously. "To me," argues Stephen Harper, chief public defender in juvenile court, "the tragedy of this whole sordid business is that, yet again, personal politics is taking precedence over the interests of the kids. People aren't willing to listen to the message because they're so pissed off at the messenger."

The Criminal Justice Council imbroglio is a case in point. Press coverage of the dispute has emphasized Petersen's controversial actions, rather than his underlying complaint: that the council is funding programs without evaluating their efficacy. During a recent three-week vacation, Petersen conducted his own study of one program, the James E. Scott Community Association Ex-Offender Project.

Over the past five years the council has allocated $2.7 million for this program, based largely on glowing evaluations. Petersen found that none of the 46 "successful participants" reported for 1992-93 actually fulfilled the requirements of their contract. Most had failed to hold a steady job. More than half had been rearrested. Many did not even meet the criteria required to enroll in the program. Nonetheless, the project was re-funded.

Petersen's latest treatise, drawn from five frustrating years on the bench, sets out a revolutionary plan to rescue Dade's juvenile justice system. But many, like Harper, fear his in-your-face style will prevent him from effecting the crucial changes he advocates, no matter where he presides.

"Here we are at a time when people are finally focused on juvenile justice, and we have one guy who, like him or not, has a plan for fixing the system," says Harper. "And nobody's paying attention to him. Instead, we're going to doom an entire generation of kids. And in the end we're going to doom ourselves to becoming the kind of society where there are only two kinds of people: criminals and people who are afraid of them.

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Steven Almond