Teen Cuisine Judge Quits; Cites Juvenile Justice’s Empty Plate

Isabella De Pommereau
March 1, 1998


The stories of the boy in court make the judge cringe. Bug-ridden food. Solitary confinement. Shackling. That, the boy tells the judge, is life at the Pahokee Youth Development Center, a facility originally built as an adult prison where moderate-risk offenders like himself were sent. The judge suspects that the conditions are exceedingly harsh. So, early one morning, he jumps in his car and drives almost 150 miles to Palm Beach County to see for himself. He brings along his most powerful weapon, a camera.

“When you’ve got a really terrible program, the only way you can make people aware of it is to take pictures,” County Circuit Judge Tom Petersen explains recently over coffee near his South Miami home. “If I wasn’t going to take pictures, nobody was going to take pictures.”

The grueling photos — boys’ forearms sliced in self-abuse, triple-fenced razor wire topping the huge yellow compound — become key to a legal battle over the placement of minors at the facility on grounds that conditions are too harsh. “This,” says Petersen, who spearheaded the lawsuit against the Department of Juvenile Justice before recusing himself from it, “was a prison for kids who don’t need to be in prison.” The center is run under contract with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice by for-profit Correctional Services Corp., based in Sarasota, Fla.

Last December, a Miami judge ruled that three moderate-risk juvenile delinquents were wrongly placed in the facility by the state Department of Juvenile Justice. The judge said conditions were too harsh for moderate-risk juveniles. That was after a federal court monitor testified that the facility where the boys were kept behind razor wire and three fences was the emotional and physical equivalent of a juvenile prison.

Going out “on the field” and rocking the boat fits in with the ways of Judge Petersen, an unorthodox, provocatively hands-on juvenile judge who experts say is the most forward-looking and innovative judge in the nation.

Shay Bilchik, administrator of the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Washington, D.C., calls him a “voice for youths and for the judiciary” who has directly influenced today’s emphasis on education as a deterrent to juvenile crime.

But the judge, who’s been called anything from a maverick to a visionary, is about to stop rocking the boat. After nine years on the bench, he is retiring, but not before having broadened what’s expected of a juvenile judge and the juvenile justice system. After all, this is a judge who came to the bench with years of community activism in Miami’s roughest neighborhoods. A man who saw his job as judge as a wider platform to reach out to underserved kids and their families. A judge who, tired of a juvenile justice system he says doesn’t work, created programs of his own to serve kids.

When he retires at 56, he will not only have adjudicated thousands of cases, he will also have sued the state over crowded juvenile facilities; checked kids in their homes late at night, created a vocational school for young delinquents and set up mentoring for truant kids. He will have tried to show officials the importance of education in preventing delinquency, and rerouting troubled youths to mainstream life before he or she has become a career criminal.

But after making waves in the juvenile justice system for years, and going around it, the judge says he’s burned out. The Pahokee battle, he says, left him convinced that the juvenile justice officials in Florida don’t want to change the system. He says he wants to retire from the bench March 31, ready to take his advocacy to new levels.

An Activist on the Streets

His hands-on approach to juvenile justice wasn’t born with arrival on the bench in 1989. It was directly shaped by his years as a community activist.

“He’s a person not only committed to helping youths,” says Seymour Gelber who hired Petersen three decades ago as an assistant state attorney to Richard Gerstein and who went on to become a mayor of Miami Beach. (Gelber is now an executive-in-residence at Florida International University.) “But here is no one I know that is more hands-on in the process, being involved on the field, in the streets, in the homes of these children.”

Fresh from Columbia Law School in 1966, a member of an idealistic generation, Petersen left New York for Miami to work in the roughest ghettos, as a VISTA volunteer.

When he got into the justice system, it was to work with kids. In 1967, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court Gault decision that gave juveniles the right to be represented, he became Dade County’s first full-time public defender representing kids. A year later, he switched to the state attorney’s office. Not that he had any interest in prosecuting, but because he was given a chance to set up a diversion program for first-time offenders. He never wanted to prosecute but stayed on as Chief Assistant to State Attorney Janet Reno.

There, he took the lead in designing the state’s — and the country’s — first restitution and diversion programs for first-time offenders. Petersen, his colleagues say, made his mark on the field of individualized justice: “Tom was always looking for appropriate answers for individual cases as opposed to blanket answers for all offenders,” Bilchik says.

It was as Reno’s right arm that Petersen’s focus on education began to take greater shape. From that time he wanted to make sure kids’ education were met and that kids went to school after they went through the system — investigating high school dropouts and inner-city schools, among other things.

In the mid-80s, he switched paths. With Reno’s backing, Petersen took a three-year leave of absence — and a big pay cut — to go work again in the housing projects. “Part of why I wanted to go was to see if I could make a bigger impact as someone in government,” he said. “Of course I did. You get a lot more done if you’re a recognized player in the system.” Through an unusual agreement between the state’s attorney, the county commission and the school district to pay for his salary, he mobilized public housing residents to sponsor day care, health and recreation programs, and set up grocery stores.

Under Petersen’s leadership, Dade County’s first preschool program was born. It was housed in Larchmont Gardens, a neighborhood of dilapidated housing units, in an unused community center. Petersen’s most publicized accomplishment then was to have trained welfare mothers run grocery stores.

All of it was achieved with one staff member — Petersen himself — with no government interference, with the assistant state attorney’s relentless effort to raise private monies. “I remember visiting him at night,” says Gelber, whom Petersen now considers his mentor. “He would be spending the whole night getting businesses and organizations to make big contributions of goods, time and money.

From State Attorney to Judge

By the late 1980s, Petersen was burned out from working in the housing projects. When an opening came up in juvenile court, he saw it as the natural next step in his advocacy for youths and their families. Appointed by then-Governor Robert Martinez, Petersen was to be reelected twice with no opposition. Today, he’s one of seven juvenile judges in Dade County — one of four dealing with delinquent cases.

What the judge saw in juvenile court alarmed him. Most of the juveniles going through the system couldn’t read or write beyond the fourth grade level; and 90 percent ended up getting rearrested. To Petersen, the correlation between delinquency, poverty and education, or lack of it, was clear. Bad neighborhoods — and bad school results — caused delinquency more than psychological defects, he felt. Yet the juvenile justice system didn’t do anything about it. Stuck with the same “mental health approach” to curbing juvenile crimes, he says, they were failing to differentiate between the high-risk and the lower-risk kids.

The judge decided that he would something about it.

In 1989, he set up a small food business in the hallway of the juvenile justice center with a two-fold goal: To give court employees a place to eat without going out and, most importantly, to give troubled kids a chance to get job training, and experience. At the beginning the program was paid for through his court budget although Petersen put $20,000 of his own money into it. He called it Teen Cuisine. Two years later, he made the cafeteria the key component of a newly created school for delinquent minors.

For Petersen to take the lead and create this type of program was only typical. “He said, if you take a child and give one-on-one attention in very small groups where they are helped, tutored and school-fed, guess what, they’re not in jail,” recalls Shirley Aron who, for 27 years, was director of Switchboard Miami, a central helpline for Miami residents that also provides services for runaway and homeless youths. Aron now evaluates youth programs as an independent consultant. “He did it, because he knew he wasn’t going to get anybody in the system to do it.”

Reaching Out to Children

Petersen brought about change in his own courtroom too. He worked toward integrating school records into criminal justice — literally so. Every morning, the judge would make printouts of kids’ school records from a central computer located on the first floor of the juvenile center and bring them up to his courtroom. “He wouldn’t do a thing without the school data in front of him,” says Johnny Stepherson, the juvenile court liaison for the schools. “No other judge does that.”

In his zeal to put education right at the center of the juvenile system, Judge Petersen went further. He established his own sets of rules. The most legendary goes like this: For every day a child misses school, the judge will lock the child up for one day. And word has gotten around the Juvenile Justice complex on Northwest 27th Avenue in North Dade. “It works, kids are aware of it,” Stepherson says. “If the judge tells them to go to school and they don’t, he delivers on that. They don’t want to be locked up.”

In certain ways, Petersen holds judges responsible for a juvenile justice system that fails to serve kids. “Judges need to be more responsive,” Petersen says. “They need to take the lead in viewing the juvenile court as being cutting edge in terms of addressing some of the social problems as opposed to becoming just another branch in the judicial system.”

That also entails checking the programs that judges will send children to. Judges don’t necessarily have to bring a video camera to the programs; they don’t have to knock on kids’ doors. But they have a responsibility to ask questions: Are the programs working? Cost effective? What’s the recidivism rate?

A Judge That Stirs the Pot

Clearly, Judge Petersen’s demanding attitude toward judges and the system as a whole has made him controversial. Shirley Aron says,”[state officials] don’t like him because it’s their policies he’s trying to change.” Some say he’s too soft on juvenile criminals. Others say he oversteps his boundaries. Petersen has been a vocal opponent of building prisons. And, as was the case with the Pahokee Youth Development Center in Palm Beach County, he argues the state built so many adult prisons that it finds itself with many empty beds — and juvenile delinquents are being placed there.

For too long, Petersen insists, judges have said they’re overburdened with cases. “That was true years ago, but not any more,” he argues. That changed some five years ago when prosecutors — not judges — were given the power to decide when to send a kid to adult court. The result? Florida today leads the nation in the number of kids tried as adult cases.

Petersen says. “One of the reasons I’m retiring, frankly, is that I find myself a little guilty. I don’t have any more cases. All I have are shoplifting cases — all the others have been sent to adult court. I’m glad I’m retiring before I reached the point where I wouldn’t care.”

de Pommereau, Isabelle. "Teen Cuisine Judge Quits; Cites Juvenile Justice’s Empty Plate." Youth Today, March/April 1998, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.