When Judge Regnal W. Garff Jr. was in his first year as a Utah juvenile court judge more than 30 years ago, he and his staff were shocked when a young boy was brought in on a homicide charge.
Now, Garff says, such cases are "commonplace." And as the judge retires this year, he says the changes he's seen in both the judiciary and the community over the past three decades indicate more crimes are being committed, but more people are showing they care and working to improve the system.In 1959, when Garff was the only juvenile court judge in the state, the juvenile court was still a part of the welfare system, and most juvenile offenders - whether their crime was truancy or armed robbery - were sent to the same industrial school in Ogden.
But Garff and others in the juvenile system helped bring about what he calls the "emancipation of the juvenile court," making it a model free-standing statewide system in 1965, and eventually building community detention centers and forming programs with private industries that gave juvenile offenders care designed specifically for them.
"You see over a period of years an evolution in the whole court system toward greater efficiency," Garff said. "There is quicker, better access and it's more economical."
Garff, who went on to serve as Utah's first presiding judge of the court of appeals, said "in many respects, there's been a breakdown in the fabric of society."
He learned early to look for a cycle of abuse in cases that involved juveniles abusing other youths, and in his later years as a juvenile court judge, Garff said he often saw the children of adults he had seen as youth.
Though the job was discouraging and overwhelming at times, he said, as a psychology graduate who always dreamed of working in the juvenile court system, he found satisfaction in watching new and better theories develop in the fields of delinquency and youth corrections.
"People say, `How could you do that for 27 years? It's so depressing,' " he said. "But the other side of the coin is that we saw kids turn around."
As the head of his courtroom, Garff says, he took advantage of every opportunity to implement innovative ideas.
He recalled times when his rulings included forcing rival gang members to spend a day with each other or having the judge himself visit their homes every few months.
Sometimes, Garff said, he would insist that juveniles who were repeat offenders exchange roles with him and impose their own sentences from the bench.
No matter what method he used, Garff said, all successful juvenile programs are backed up by "valuable community resources" and a judge who knows how to be tough.
"Kids used to call me the hanging judge," he said. "And I liked that. I cultivated that. Accountability is the most important element, and I wanted them to know that what I said was what I meant."
But often, what Garff said was "I care" or "I want to help you."
"See, I was interested in what was happening to them," he said. "This is a job where you've got to get down in the trenches, not just sit on a bench and issue edicts. You can't just hit them over the head with authority, you've got to let them know you care."
Garff says retirement won't take him too far from the judiciary that he loves and the issues he has tackled for most of his life. He plans to remain a senior judge, serve on several judicial committees and do some writing for judicial and historical journals.