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Juvenile justice reforms earn Senate committee approval

First Published      Last Updated Mar 02 2017 09:46 pm

A proposed overhaul of Utah's juvenile justice system earned the approval of a Senate panel on Thursday, despite pushback from members of the education community.

The bill, HB239, is aimed at decriminalizing juvenile offenders by addressing first-time and low-risk crimes through at-home and alternative programs rather than detention.

Members of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee voted 3-1 in favor of the bill, which passed the House on Tuesday. It now moves to the full Senate.

Supporters argued that current juvenile justice practices disproportionately target children of color and low-income families. And charges like school truancy and contempt of court result in otherwise law-abiding youth being detained, where they are exposed to and become affiliated with perpetrators of severe crimes.



"The results we're going to get for these kids are so much better," said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City.

But representatives of Granite School District expressed concern about the effect the reforms would have on schools.

Doug Larson, a lawyer with the school district, said the bill expects educators to create support services for juvenile offenders without any additional funding.

"There's no money to fund those programs in the schools," Doug Larson. "We are absolutely unprepared, unprepared, to provide that service."

Granite spokesman Ben Horsley said the bill would remove truancy court as a tool to incentivize school attendance. He said the district has issued 1,648 truancy notices this academic year, but only 4 have required a court appearance.

"The big stick that kept them coming back to us was the threat of court," he said.

Educators are supportive of juvenile justice reform, Horsley said, but more work was needed on the bill to avoid a gap in services as schools struggle to adjust to a new legal landscape.

"We feel like there has been a big party and it's at our house," Horsley said. "And we're supposed to pay the bill."

The bill would also limit the amount of time youth can spend in detention centers, put a cap on fees and service hours that a juvenile judge can order, and require that lawyers be provided to all juveniles charged criminally.

The legislation is a result of six months of study by the Utah Juvenile Justice Working Group, comprised of juvenile judges, attorneys, legislators and others appointed by the governor to study how youths are treated in the state's justice system.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said the prosecutors and judges in his district were concerned that the bill is going "too far and fast."

"I don't know what the problems are in Salt Lake or St. George," Hillyard said. "Our people up there [in Logan] feel like they've got a pretty good system working."

But Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said the incarceration rate of people of color suggest a structural imbalance in Utah courts.

"Whatever is in place, is not working," Escamilla said.

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