Juvenile justice reform mostly helped white kids in Utah, not racial minorities

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Juvenile Justice Services Director Brett Peterson, at Decker Youth Center in West Valley City, center left, is joined by Gov. Gary Herbert as they speak with some of the youth working through the program on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, during a tour to discuss its success after juvenile justice reforms were passed in 2017.

A new report from a Utah nonprofit shows that efforts to reform Utah’s juvenile justice system have worked in reducing the number of kids in the criminal justice system — but it’s mostly benefited children who are white.

Voices for Utah Children released data on Thursday that shows despite a sweeping juvenile justice reform in 2017, youth minorities are still overrepresented in the system.

The nonprofit said that while Utah has made “enormous strides” in reducing the number of kids in the juvenile justice system, racial inequities remain.

Between 2014 and 2018, arrests of children in Utah dropped 26.2%, according to the report.

“That reduction, however, has not been equitable,” the report reads, “as it has been achieved primarily through a reduction in white youths’ contact with law enforcement.”

White youths’ proportion of overall arrests dropped from 70% in 2014, according to the report, to 56% in 2018.

In that same time frame, proportion of overall arrests for young people of color increased from 30% in 2014 to 44% in 2018.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Those inequities continued through the legal process. Voices for Utah Children found that 2019 data showed that white children were less likely to be referred to the criminal justice system at all, and those that were were more likely to be offered alternatives to going before a judge and being punished.

Native/Indigenous youth were sent to locked detention centers at three times the expected representation, the report noted. And Black children make up nearly 12% of all “secure care placements” — though they represent just 1.4% of the school-aged population.

Brett Peterson, director of Utah’s Juvenile Justice Services, said Thursday that the data wasn’t that surprising to him. When you walk through a juvenile facility, he said, it’s hard not to notice the kids of color.

“This type of inequity in our system is not OK,” he said. “This is an area that we definitely need front and center. It needs to be talked about.”

The same trend happened in the adult system as well. There, Utah legislators passed criminal justice reform in 2015. Again, the reform worked in keeping some people out of prison — but mostly benefited white Utahns. The percentage of racial minorities among new prisoners was on the rise.

Voices for Utah Children recommended in its report that it will take “deliberate focus and intentional action” to fix the racial issues in the juvenile system. They suggested that stakeholders speak directly to youths about how they feel their race or ethnicity may be connected to their outcomes in the justice system. Better partnerships with community groups is needed, they say, to empower parents and other advocates to speak up for equity.

The nonprofit also suggested collaborating with law enforcement to move away from punitive responses to gang issues — like high-school-based “gang sweeps” and aggressive prosecutions — and instead focus on early intervention for young people at risk for gang involvement.

Peterson said he believes those working in the juvenile system need to better understand “community trauma,” and said he hopes a recent rule change in the adult system could be mirrored in the juvenile system as well.

Earlier this year, the Utah Sentencing Commission approved a rule that will allow adult defendants to argue they should get a more lenient sentence if they can show they have been affected by racial bias in the criminal justice system.

He wants those conversations to happen in youth courtrooms as well, as just one way to help address the troubling data.

“We are really committed to continuing to embrace this challenge, this shortcoming in our system,” he said, “and continue to work to bring about that truly equal justice system.”