Utah lawmaker wants young people to stay in juvenile lock-ups rather than adult prisons

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, at a ceremony put on by the Utah Board of Juvenile Justice in Salt Lake City, Thursday October 26, 2017. Snow was named one of three Utah Board of Juvenile Justice Youth Advocates of the Year

A Utah lawmaker wants to allow more young people to stay in the juvenile justice system, even after they turn 21, rather than being sent to adult courts, hoping to offer counseling and reduce recidivism.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, is proposing a lengthy bill that would limit when younger teens can be sent to the adult system — a change proposed after officials noticed a substantial spike in kids as young as 14 being sent to the adult court for less serious property crimes.

Currently, youth as young as 14 can be sent to adult court for any felony if a juvenile judge decides it is warranted.

Snow’s bill would allow young people 16 years old or older to be sent to adult court only for the most serious offenses. Youth that are 14 and 15 would be allowed to go to the adult court only for murder and aggravated murder charges.

The bill would not change a part of Utah’s law that requires teens 16 and older to be automatically transferred to the adult system if accused of murder or aggravated murder.

HB384 would also allow young people who commit serious crimes — like murder or aggravated kidnapping — to stay in juvenile detention centers until the age of 25. The current law only allows young people to stay in the juvenile system until they are 21 years old.

Brett Peterson, director of Juvenile Justice Services, said Wednesday that after years of juvenile justice reforms, his facilities have the capabilities to help young people into their early 20s.

“Youth placed in the adult system have worse outcomes,” he said, “they reoffend at a higher rate and often in more violent ways than those who remain in juvenile custody when possible.”

The change is intended to give young people a better chance at receiving counseling and services available in the juvenile system that isn’t offered at the adult facilities.

“Our adult correction system is not designed to really deal with youth offenders,” Snow told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. “Our juvenile justice system is.”

Snow’s proposed legislation also allows for a judge to keep a child in a juvenile lock-up longer than usual if he or she committed a crime that resulted in someone’s death.

That change would be particularly meaningful for Brian Heugly, a Sandy man whose 23-year-old son, Jordan, died after a 15-year-old with a learner's permit struck him while speeding through a neighborhood.

Heugly told lawmakers Wednesday that the boy who ran over their son admitted to manslaughter and got probation — and no time in a detention center — because the judge couldn’t find he was a “continued risk” to the community. They didn’t want the boy to go to prison, he said, but they did want some sort of punishment. Maybe just six months or so locked up.

"We'd like to see this change made," he said tearfully, "so another family doesn't have to go through what we've gone through."

Additionally, Snow’s bill would allow for hearings on weekends and holidays to reduce the amount of time youths are held in detention facilities.

The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill unanimously, sending it to the entire House for a vote.

Snow's bill is a continuation of several years of legislation aimed at reforming Utah's juvenile justice system.

Utah lawmakers passed legislation in 2017 that brought sweeping changes. The goal was to emphasize early intervention, and keep low-risk offenders in their homes instead of detention centers. The legislation was a result of months of study by the Utah Juvenile Working Group, which is composed of juvenile court judges, attorneys, legislators and others appointed by the governor to study how young people are treated in the state’s justice system.

State data shows that since the Legislature passed that law, just over half of cases where Utah youth have been referred to court have ended with what they call a “nonjudicial” remedy, such as peer court at school or group counseling for a family. And there’s been a 44% decrease of youth being ordered out of their homes and into detention programs.

It’s too early to see whether these changes will lower recidivism rates for young people, but those involved say they’re encouraged by the data.