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Utah Lawmakers Form Committee To Oversee Juvenile Justice Reform

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While the U.S. Senate is debating national juvenile justice reform, Utah’s lawmakers have announced the formation of a committee to oversee the state’s own changes to the system.

In March, Utah passed a bill containing extensive reform for the juvenile justice system. Representative Lowry Snow was the bill’s primary sponsor, and is the chair of Utah’s newly formed Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee.

“I have more than a passing interest, no pun intended, in seeing this bill pass,” Snow said. “I really believe it’s going to make a difference in our state and how we treat our children in the juvenile justice system.”

Todd Weiler, the bill’s secondary sponsor, says HB0239 is focused on preventing unnecessary youth incarceration.

“The real emphasis is trying to keep more of these juveniles in the home with their families, and get them treatment and services in the home,” Weiler said.

According to Snow, incarceration happens in inconsistent ways; minority children are sentenced at a disproportionately high rate. Data shows that in some counties youth are more likely to get time for offenses that would only earn probation in other counties.

Debbie Whitlock is the deputy director of the Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services. She says Utah youth may be placed in the system more than is necessary.

“Part of the major drivers for moving kids into the system and into out-of-home placement were contempt, for not complying with court orders and truancy,” Whitlock said.

Failure to pay fines can also land children in contempt, which can be punished with detention.

“Taking first time offenders, low risk offenders, and having them interact with more delinquent kids, or kids who are committing more serious crime, is often detrimental to those first time offenders,” Whitlock said.

Teens who are incarcerated are significantly more likely to reoffend, and less likely to graduate high school.

In 2014, A budget review of Utah’s Department of Human Services found that 53 percent of Utah youth who spent time in Juvenile Justice Services later reoffend. This rate is significantly higher than in neighboring states. In Colorado, Idaho and Arizona, youth recidivism rates were all less than 34 percent.

The same 2014 budget review found that if Utah could bring youth recidivism rates down to 34 percent, Juvenile Justice Services could save $6 million over time.