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TOUGH JUDGE WINS RESPECT OF KIDS, PARENTS

Third District Juvenile Court Judge Andrew Valdez finds it ironic that in just 11/2 years on the bench, he's earned the reputation of being the meanest juvenile judge in the system.

Valdez, a self-confessed bleeding-heart liberal and former criminal defense attorney, makes no bones about the fact that he makes young offenders take responsibility for their actions. He is particularly adamant about taggers and graffiti. And repeat offenders are likely to raise his ire.

"(When I see graffiti) I get mad. I don't like the defacing and the destruction of property. It's very disrespectful," Valdez said. "It's an invasion of privacy. When you put up a wall or a fence, you expect a certain privacy and respect. When someone comes and writes graffiti on your property, (that privacy and respect) is shattered."

So Valdez makes taggers literally right the wrongs they've committed. He's well-known for doling out community service hours with the Utah Arts Council and Salt Lake Community College's theater department; making good use of the court system's graffiti cleanup program and sentencing graffiti writers to temporarily own the walls they've personally marred.

"I see myself as very firm," he said. "The juvenile court gained a reputation as being lenient, so kids would come in thinking they'd get off. I draw the line early. I'm not waiting for their criminal behavior to escalate. I try to be fair."

Good-humored - yet intense - Valdez, one of Utah's first minority judges, remembers a certain hardball judge helping deter him from a life in the criminal justice system. Likewise, he refuses to allow lax discipline of young offenders to be a "travesty on the system and a fraud on the public."

So he not only promotes restitution of damages to the property, he also orders remediation classes at Granite Community Schools. He's also helped form a corporate mentoring program - which now boasts 300 mentors and nearly 100 youths - and coaches midnight basketball games in Salt Lake City.

"They like it (the approach that allows them to use their art skills). One kid I assigned to the college was real excited about it, because he wanted to go to college," Valdez said. One tagger said he actually preferred Valdez's courtroom because of his apparent concern.

Parents give him high marks, too.

"I've spent a lot of time in his courtroom. I'm extremely impressed with him," said the social worker father of a nabbed tagger. "I don't think anyone cares more than him. He doesn't go along with the traditional protocol. It's nice to see the wheels of justice in action."