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Sweeping reforms proposed for Utah’s juvenile justice system

Justice lapses • Study finds system often fails 
“low-risk” offenders.

The full House will consider a plan to make sweeping changes in how youth are treated in the state's juvenile justice system.

Despite questions about the more than $9 million estimated cost and opposition from some Utah youth prosecutors, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved HB239, advancing it to a floor debate.

The bill would emphasize early intervention, with the goal of keeping low-risk youth offenders in their homes instead of detention centers. 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.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, the bill sponsor, told the committee the legislation was drafted after six months of study by the Utah Juvenile Justice Working Group, which was composed of juvenile judges, attorneys, legislators and others.

In studying Utah's system, Snow said the working group found that once youth are in the juvenile justice system, it is very difficult for them to get out."The main purpose of the juvenile system is to help rehabilitate young people and get them on their way and out of the system," Snow said. "Not keep them in."

The working group's study found that Utah youths who were deemed "low-risk" often were progressing deeper into the juvenile justice system. And if juveniles are placed out of the home — whether that be 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.

Several parents who were in support of the bill told the committee the current system mixes truant youth with more serious offenders.

Sabita Bastakoti, a West High School senior, told the committee the system punishes minority youths and those in poverty who can't afford to pay fines. She participates in a youth court, she said, and sees many of the low-level offenders the bill would address.

One teen, she said, was reported for being truant, but the peer court later found out he had missed school to care for his younger siblings while his parents worked.

"If not for peer court," she said, "he would probably have faced detention and never been given the chance to work towards his dream. We don't need to have youths who commit minor misdemeanors to stand in front of a judge."

HB239 includes a "tiered response to school-based behavior," so students who are truant or commit other minor crimes are dealt with by a team of crisis intervention professionals and a solution can be reached without involving the juvenile court system. It also proposes that every case filed to a judge be screened by a prosecutor — something that is currently being handled frequently by probation officers.

Salt Lake County prosecutor William Carlson told the committee this change would likely require six additional full-time employees needed in his office to screen those cases, costs which are not accounted for in the bill's fiscal note. He added the legislative cost estimate doesn't address the proposal that all youth — indigent or not — be given defense attorneys.

Paul Wake, a prosecutor in Utah County, told the committee that he opposes the bill because he did not believe the problems in the system are as severe as has been suggested.

"You can't say, let's put a kid in JJS [Juvenile Justice Services] custody for three months and we will have successfully treated their sex offender problem," he said. "If we do say, let's leave him at home and he's been [assaulting] his sister — that's just horrendous."

By putting youth in detention centers less often, Juvenile Justice Services will save money, according to director Susan Burke, which would then be used to fund early intervention efforts. Over half of the fiscal note — an estimated $5.5 million — accounts for increased costs that may be incurred by local education agencies implementing the Tiered Restorative Justice Program.

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