Utah could join a growing number of states to end fines in the juvenile justice system

Court officials expressed concern over the potential loss of more than $700K in revenue, saying the fees paid for important programs that help youths.

(Laura Seitz | Deseret News, pool photo) Utah lawmakers passed legislation that brought sweeping changes to how youths are treated in the juvenile justice system two years ago. In this photo, a 16-year-old Utah boy is led into a Davis County courtroom in 2014.

Utah legislators could soon eliminate fines in the juvenile justice system, joining a growing number of states who’ve recently abolished court-ordered fees as a way to punish youths.

SB120, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, would prohibit judges from ordering monetary fines in juvenile court cases.

But doing so would come with a price tag. The money from juvenile court fines and fees has been used in Utah to fund rehabilitative programs for young people. Without that source of revenue, legislative fiscal analysts estimate the state would have to pitch in more than $710,000 yearly to keep these programs going.

Weiler told a legislative subcommittee on Tuesday that the burden of paying those fines is often left to the parents — which creates an issue of equity in the youth criminal justice system.

“I think if a kid gets in trouble and all he sees is mom or dad write a check and then they’re out of trouble, I don’t think that’s helped the kid,” Weiler said. “In fact, that may have made it worse.”

Pamela Vickery, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, told the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee that judges ordering youths to pay fines disproportionately affect low-income families. She noted that judges have other ways to dole out punishment that don’t require money, such as book reports, community service or going to therapy.

“We are dealing with young people,” Vickery said. “And the goal of what we’re doing in the juvenile court system is to impose orders to have a rehabilitative effect on their behavior. And if we’re in a situation where a young person is able to pay a fine and walk out the door, the question is ‘How much rehabilitative impact is that having?’”

Vickery said if Utah legislators pass SB120, they would join seven other states who enacted similar measures last year — including Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Oregon.

The subcommittee gave the bill a unanimous vote of approval Tuesday. It now moves to the full Senate for a vote.

The legislation did receive some pushback on Tuesday, mostly juvenile prosecutors from around the state who said young people working jobs often would rather pay a fine than work community service hours.

“Each child is different,” said Stephen Starr, a Weber County prosecutor. “The judges need tools to address each individual child.”

Michael Dreschell, assistant state court administrator, said the courts were concerned about the measure because the fees that would be eliminated partially fund important programs that help rehabilitate young people through interventions or diversion programs. The bill’s fiscal note estimates that it would cost more than $710,000 from the general fund to keep these programs going if juvenile fines were eliminated.

“We’re not asking that the Legislature build the financial backbone of juvenile courts on the backs of youths through fines,” Dreschell said. “But what we are saying is that that has been the model that has been used by the Legislature to fund very important programs that are made available to the youth.”