Arizona County taking a hard stance on teenagers trafficking drugs

A new program in one Arizona county is raising red flags regarding how juveniles charged with a drug crime are handled.

In many counties across Arizona, prosecutors lack the resources to take on cases involving underage children charged with trafficking drugs. According to the Los Angeles Times, that is no longer the case in Cochise County, which last year launched an effort called Operation Immediate Consequences.

Through the program, juveniles are charged as adults and can be sentenced to an adult prison. In some cases, the teens do not even have legal representation when reviewing a plea deal. This effort is eye-opening and illustrates the hard stance law enforcement officers are taking on drug crimes.

Charged as adults

The LA Times reports that since Cochise County launched the program, 51 juveniles have been charged with drug trafficking. Through charging them as adults, the county is able to detain them rather than place them on probation and release them.

Prior to this effort, teenagers who were caught bringing drugs into the country were sent back to Mexico. Now, they are offered a plea deal: In exchange for a guilty plea, the teens are sent to an adult prison for 18 months.

Officials with the county would not state how many teens received a public defender. The LA Times does note that in some cases, the juveniles did not have any legal representation.

Violating rights

In one case, a 16-year-old was arrested on charges of smuggling marijuana from Mexico. The boy, who turned 17 while in prison, originally accepted the plea deal without the benefit of having a criminal defense attorney. However, he later was assigned an attorney and rescinded the plea, choosing instead to try to have the case sent to juvenile court.

Going to juvenile court could mean the boy will be able to take high school courses and even live in the country one day. Failing to get the case sent to juvenile court, however, could result in up to three years in prison.

The boy's attorney stated that the teen, who had been earning just $47 a week working at a factory, did not understand the crime he committed and instead saw a chance to earn $400. Therefore, he should be able to go through the juvenile system and have a chance at rehabilitation. The way the county is handling these cases, the attorney argued, violates the rights of these juveniles.

The big picture

While many of the teenagers who have been charged through Operation Immediate Consequences are Mexican, Arizona juveniles have also been charged. Two high school baseball players were charged in February, though neither has entered a plea yet.

This program highlights an issue with the way the justice system handles many nonviolent drug crimes. In Arizona, transporting more than 2 pounds of marijuana is considered a felony punishable by up to 12.5 years in jail. Opponents to such harsh punishments argue that rehabilitation and alternative consequences are better suited to reduce crime.

Anyone with questions regarding this issue should consult with a criminal defense attorney in Arizona.