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Utah lawmakers OK sweeping juvenile justice changes — but not without some opposition

First Published      Last Updated Mar 13 2017 08:00 am

Youth offenders » ACLU of Utah supported original bill but lamented that the final version was “watered down.”

Despite some opposition — and a number of changes to the original bill — Utah lawmakers this session passed legislation that will bring sweeping changes to how youths are treated in the juvenile justice system.

HB239 emphasizes early intervention, with the goal of keeping low-risk youth offenders in their homes instead of detention centers.

But the bill that passed on the last day of the session differed from the original piece of legislation. Gone is the language that would have afforded juveniles and their parents court-appointed attorneys. Wording that required schools to take a tier-based response to juvenile delinquents was softened to say schools "may" opt to take such an action.



But some of the biggest proposed changes will remain, so long as Gov. Gary Herbert signs the bill into law. The final bill will still limit the amount of time youths can spend in detention centers, and it would put a cap on fees and service hours that a juvenile judge can order, among other changes.

The legislation is a result of six months of study by the Utah Juvenile Working Group, which is composed of juvenile judges, attorneys, legislators and others appointed by the governor.

Bill sponsor Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, has said the primary goal of the legislation was to change how juveniles are dealt with in the criminal justice system, while not jeopardizing public safety.

Snow said the proposed changes would also cut costs and were rooted in evidence-based practices — practices that Utah court officials said Friday they can support.

"We look forward to this infusion of resources," said Geoffrey Fattah, the communications director for the Utah State Courts, "and to working collaboratively with our juvenile justice partners to implement these important reforms."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah had been a vocal supporter of HB239 throughout the legislative session. And while they call the final bill "a step in the right direction," they said they were disappointed by the changes made throughout that session that "watered down" the bill to appease the courts, counties and school administrators, among others.

"We understand that change is very difficult," said Anna Thomas, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Utah, "but we had hoped that actors within the juvenile justice system would have shown more willingness to do what is right — and desperately needed — for the youths of this state."

Throughout the legislative session, several groups spoke out against the bill, mostly to voice opposition to changes that would cost them money. The Utah Association of Counties initially opposed the idea of public defenders for all youths, since Utah delegates to individual counties its constitutional responsibility to pay for attorneys for those who can't afford one. Once that portion of the bill was removed, however, UAC supported the bill.

Many in the education realm also opposed the bill, arguing in committee hearings that the bill saddled them with creating services that don't exist right now, with no additional funding.

The "tiered-response" to school-related offenses was intended to keep youths who are skipping school from entering into the juvenile court system and progressing deeper into the system.

But Granite School District Director Ben Horsley said at a Senate committee hearing that having that threat of sending students to court often deterred youths from continued truancy. He said the district was not prepared to fund and implement the services required by the bill.

"We love the bill," Horsley said, "but we feel like there's been a big party, and it's all at our house, and we're supposed to pay the bill — and we didn't even know it's coming."

Those who spoke in favor of the bill told lawmakers the changes would help prevent mixing truant youths with more serious offenders. If juveniles are placed out of the home — whether in a detention center, a group home or other placement — they fared worse and reoffended more often than those who were allowed to stay in their homes, the working group's study found.

Oftentimes, youths were taken out of their homes simply because the services they needed, such as substance use or mental health treatment, weren't available in their community.

One Utahn told lawmakers that he was involved in the juvenile court system throughout his teenage years. But instead of giving him the help he needed, Christian Quinonez said, the court system focused on extracting punishment from him.

"In my experience," he said, "the help and assistance that I believe I needed during my hour of criminal and drug acts was to have someone who would have taken me aside and truly asked, 'What is going on in this person's life?' ... Instead, I was met with court orders that focused far more on retribution."

jmiller@sltrib.com

 

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