Tribune Editorial: When juvenile justice lightens up, the future get brighter

Scott Matheson Courthouse. photo by Ryan Galbraith. 12/29/1999

Few among us want to be remembered for what we did in high school.

But too many people haven’t been able to escape their childhood mistakes — including many who faced hardships no average teen would recognize.

It’s called the school-to-prison pipeline, and awareness of it is starting to change how we treat young juvenile offenders.

The purpose of having separate juvenile courts is to allow early mistakes to remain in childhood, but it hasn’t always been that simple. With juvenile crime rising a couple of decades ago, the thinking was that harsher penalties would deter offenders. But too often those penalties hardened delinquents instead of turning them around. The consequences also were felt disproportionately among racial and ethnic communities.

The Utah Legislature took a courageous step two years ago when it passed a large reform of the state’s juvenile justice system, and now we are starting to see the fruits.

The juvenile courts aren’t as clogged with minor cases. Detention centers aren’t as clogged with minor offenders. And young futures aren’t as clogged with the burdens of the past.

In the endless debate over how much stick and how much carrot it takes to turn children into responsible adults, juvenile justice reform is the realization that a smaller stick can be a carrot.

When a high school kid gets caught fighting or smoking weed, there must be consequences. Society needs order, and young delinquents need to know there are societal limits.

But there doesn’t need to be a paper trail. The reform package diverts more cases to student peer courts. It also allows for more referrals to family counseling, an acknowledgement that young offenders are not just a product of their own decisions.

The new law also put limits on how much time a juvenile can be incarcerated. In the school-to-prison pipeline, detention centers are the intake valves. They are where small-time offenders meet and associate with the truly seasoned ones.

There also are new limits on community service hours and restitution. Both are important tools for judges who decide kids’ futures, but they have put young people in unrealistic holes that reduce the chances of moving on.

This is the junior version of criminal justice reform. Americans have turned a corner. The United States still incarcerates more people than almost all developed nations, but that percentage has peaked. We’re now removing mandatory sentences and giving judges more discretion to mete out justice that is more just.

And that should start with young offenders. Utah legislators got this right. Because of their foresight, future Utahns won’t see so much lost human potential.

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