After being incarcerated at age 12, this Utah man is trying to break the cycle for other kids

Utah’s youth incarceration rate is dropping, but disparities remain a big concern.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the Utah chapter of Save the Kids from Incarceration, share ideas, at Salt Lake Community College, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Triumphant. That’s how Brock Smith feels when he steps in front of the mic.

“When I speak, my anxiety dissipates and I find my natural flow,” Smith said. “It’s exhilarating, empowering and deeply satisfying.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brock Smith shares some ideas with the members of the Utah chapter of Save the Kids from Incarceration, at Salt Lake Community College, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

Whether he’s presenting about mental health or serving as proxy for incarcerated citizens fighting for civil rights in Louisiana courts, Smith openly embraces how far he’s come and knows the power his interaction with the juvenile justice system yields when advocating for youth tangled in its web.

Currently, Smith is obtaining a social work degree. He wants to help kids and families break the cycles of incarceration by connecting them to resources on the state, non-profit and personal level. He knows the devastating impact of the criminal justice system, and he’s grown into the type of role model and advocate he wishes he and his family had had.

As a preteen, Smith vividly remembers when a corrections officer escorted him down a long hallway to pick up a thin blue mattress before introducing him to the cell where he would sleep for the next few weeks of his life.

“I kept thinking ‘Wow, this is really happening,’” Smith recollected. “I’m 12 years old, this is happening and I’m going to jail.”

In the summer of 2007, Smith was shopping for school clothes with his siblings and mom.

“My mom felt a lot of pressure from society and being a single mother to make sure that we had, you know, nice school clothes to wear,” Smith said.

All three kids picked out their new outfits, left the store and never made it to their car.

“We got busted for stealing school clothes,” Smith said.

Smith took the blame. He believed law enforcement would go easy on a 12-year-old.

“I was arrested on theft over a thousand dollars,” Smith said. “So, that’s grand theft.”

As a teen and young adult, Smith, now 27, was trapped in the system without a lot of guidance on how to escape.

Years of hardship, unsafe situations and lost loved ones drove Smith to change the trajectory of his life. His perspective provides useful insight for parents who are concerned about their kids, people desperate to disconnect from a life of crime and policy influencers looking to improve the juvenile justice system.

“It would have been nice to have my family get some sort of mental health treatment or some community involvement, maybe some programs for youth in this situation,” Smith said. “It really was just punishment, release and fines.”

Prioritizing prevention

A Youth Services Program launched by the Utah Juvenile Justice Services looks to provide exactly the sort of help Smith wishes his family would’ve had.

Originally launched in 2019, the program creates a tailored plan for families and kids with the goal of preventing delinquency among youth before they end up in the hands of the juvenile justice system.

“JJS [Juvinile Justice Services] Youth Services is a no wrong door approach to services that allows youth and families to receive critical services and case management on the front end with no court involvement,” said Pam Vickrey, the executive director of the Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys.

The services include (but are not limited to) individual and family counseling, connections to community resources and skill-building courses. After completing the program, 97% of youth were able to avoid child protective services and juvenile justice intervention in 2021.

Salt Lake County also has its own Youth Services network that provides various support options for youth, families and criminal interaction prevention.

A parent’s quick guide

Research indicates that there are steps parents can take to prevent their child from going down a path that leads to juvenile delinquency:

  1. Intervene Early: As early as possible, take action to address concerning child behavior. Seek support from community organizations like those mentioned in this article.

  2. Learning/Doing: Youth attach themselves to criminal and delinquent activity, in search of something they can be good at and find acceptance in doing. The alternative is to help your child develop the ability to do something useful that is valued by others: the community, the elderly, their school, etc. Research shows that if a child feels they have learned skills that are valued by their parents and their community, they will lean into these instead of delinquent activities.

  3. Attaching/Belonging: Along with learning and doing, youth need to build positive social attachments. The most critical attachment is with parents. Parents should be deeply engaged in deciding what learning/doing would be most positive for their child, and service to which groups would most help them. To the extent possible, parents should be engaged in this process. This may be a challenge where parents work long hours. This is where organizations like JJS can be helpful to parents in designing a tailored plan.

Uplifting lived experiences

On a stormy Tuesday afternoon, Brock Smith was among nearly two dozen college students gathered in a circle at Salt Lake Community College to discuss ways to keep kids out of the criminal justice system. Smith doesn’t want kids to experience the same trauma, for others, the passion comes from witnessing their peers and loved ones struggle to navigate life outside the system.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Anthony Nocella (right) leads a discussion with the members of the Utah chapter of Save the Kids from Incarceration, at Salt Lake Community College, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

“We trust each other, we listen to each other, we value honesty and we can be vulnerable with each other,” said Dr. Anthony Nocella, a criminal justice professor at SLCC. “And that’s what we need to do as a community. It’s happening here.”

In 2020, a little over 6,000 Utah youth came in contact with the juvenile justice system in various ways like arrests and court referrals. And youth of color, especially Black youth, make up a disproportionate percentage of kids in the system, according to the Utah Commission of Juvenile Justice. A 2020 analysis from the UCJJ shows Black youth are nine times more likely to be held in a detention center than white youth.

One reason experts agree for the over representation of youth of color in juvenile justice is the lack of role models who resemble and connect with kids from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.

Dr. Nocella spearheads the Utah chapter of the grassroots organization Save the Kids (or STK) from Incarceration. As a fully volunteer organization, Nocella says it, “focuses on Brown and Black communities and decriminalizing Brown and Black communities,” through cultural education, shared experience and support.

STK Utah has 50 active volunteers, around 20 of whom are formerly incarcerated. Since the chapter’s founding three years ago, they’ve started the Utah Reintegration Project, opened a community peace and justice center, held youth poetry nights and hope to eventually open a halfway house for adults leaving prison.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) MayKela shares some of her ideas with the members of the Utah chapter of Save the Kids from Incarceration, at Salt Lake Community College, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

“I’ve had sisters take their lives because they haven’t survived the trauma we were going through ... . The contact with the juvenile justice system changed their identity of self,” MayKela Cox, who was incarcerated as a teen, and a member of STK said. “So, Save the Kids is not only literally about saving kids but altering the identity of folks who had lived experiences that look different than others.”

These kinds of tactics uphold transformative mentoring, which has resulted in lower recidivism rates among young people intertwined with the system.

In New York City, the Arches Transformative Mentoring program paired kids on probation with adults that shared a similar cultural background and exposure to the juvenile justice system. Within 12 months, recidivism dropped 69% for youth participating in the program.

The sharing of personal experiences is an effective way to deter kids from getting involved or staying involved with the system, says Pam Vickrey, the executive director of the Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys.

“The one thing with lived experience is [youth] are able to share what their experiences are, the things that did benefit them and the impact of their situations on their family,” said Vickrey.

Utah started its own Creditable Messanger program in August of 2021 strictly for youth in secure care, the most intense form of court supervision that includes a detention stay. However, it’s too soon to tell if the program will impact Utah’s youth recidivism rate.

What next?

A lot has changed since Brock Smith navigated Utah’s juvenile justice system in 2007. Utah has implemented more alternatives to detention, passed juvenile justice reform legislation and the overall youth incarceration rate has dropped.

“But what we have not seen is a correction of the overrepresentation of youth of color,” Vickrey said, “if anything the Voices for Utah Children report showed that the kids that are benefiting from the reform are white.”

Vickrey says they’re working to identify the problem and figure out where things are going wrong.

“Part of the focus of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee is to look at and continue to monitor the implementation of reform,” Vickrey said. “It’s something that continues to be looked at: where are we getting that overrepresentation and why are we struggling to fix that so much?”

Additionally, Vickrey notes learning about a youth’s journey inside the system is an important tool to juvenile justice policy change.

“The lived experience piece is important to understand how kids are hearing and processing what’s happening to them in the courtroom,” said Vickrey. “They help us make recommendations to the Legislature about changes that should be made to our juvenile justice system.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brook Smith, Anthony Nocella, and Ken-Tay Lee, members of the Utah chapter of Save the Kids from Incarceration, at Salt Lake Community College, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

As juvenile justice experts continue to analyze the racial disparities and other limitations, Smith will continue to tell his story to provide support for kids navigating the same criminal system he struggled to leave behind through clinical social work and community engagement.

“I was a kid that could use saving,” said Smith. “I would like to play the same role I could have used in some way or form and be an advocate for those that came from that traumatic situation.”

Solutions in Practice

  • If you’re worried about your child falling into the juvenile justice system, they be the right fit for Utah’s Youth Services Program or Salt Lake County’s program.

  • There’s an endless amount of ways to get involved with juvenile delinquency prevention in Utah. To get involved with Save the Kids, visit their website.

  • If you’re formerly incarcerated and looking for support, check out the Utah Reintegration Project.

  • Brock Smith is a co-founder of the recovery-based non-profit Fourlifers Inc, an organization aimed at serving vulnerable communities in the Salt Lake City area through sharing tools, resources and collective experience.