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Protecting the Bill of Rights in Utah since 1958

Criminal Justice Reform on the Hill: Part 2

20 March 2017 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

Our post-legislative-session blog series continues today with another post about criminal justice reform during the 2017 session.LegisUpdateBlog

(You may recall that before the Session began, we highlighted ten positive, proactive areas of civil liberties work that we intended to follow during the 45-day deluge of lawmaking. In a series of blog posts, we will revisit those 10 areas of work – AND give you news about a few more bonus issue areas for good measure! Last week was our first, “Criminal Justice Reform on the Hill: Part 1.)

For our second post-session update post, we tackle another major area of criminal justice reform. This time...for the kids.

JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM

The ACLU of Utah was very invested in HB239, “Juvenile Justice Amendments,” sponsored by Rep. Lowry Snow (R-Saint George). That is to say, we didn’t have much control over what was actually addressed in the bill, but we cared a lot about the outcome! We were very impressed with how it started the session and we were pretty pleased with how it looked when it finally passed (the Salt Lake Tribune did a nice piece on the bill here).

HB239 was the culmination of many months of hard work by Rep. Snow and other members of the state’s official Juvenile Justice Working Group, convened by the Governor and officially supported by the leadership of the House, Senate and Utah Supreme Court.

The Working Group, supported by a team of data analysts and researchers from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project, was tasked with making recommendations to state leadership to how Utah’s juvenile justice system could be made more effective and fair, while also producing better public safety outcomes.

The Working Group released an official report, adopted and endorsed by the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, in November of 2016; this report contained a set of very robust policy recommendations, upon which HB239 was then based.

The ACLU of Utah and other advocacy organizations – including Voices for Utah Children, Utah Coalition of La Raza, Racially Just Utah, the YWCA of Utah, the Disability Law Center, and the NAACP Ogden Branch – shadowed this official group’s progress throughout 2016 and into 2017. We produced our own report, using official data about racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. Our report, creatively titled "Racial Disparities in Utah's Juvenile Justice System," included our own recommendations as to how the system could be made more equitable and fair.

Rep. Snow’s bill originally contained language addressing very policy recommendation contained in the Working Group’s official report. The original version of the bill elicited strong pushback from the juvenile courts, the counties, prosecutors and school administrations. Though concessions were made to appease the concerns of these groups, the final version of the bill nonetheless will address several areas of concern noted by the ACLU of Utah and other community stakeholders. For example, the legislation addresses:  

  • Detention for truancy. After this law goes into effect, juvenile court judges will not be able to send youth to detention when their most serious crime is missing school.
  • Failure/contempt for non-payment of fines. Youth in the system will no longer be held in contempt or in violation of probation simply because they are not able to afford to pay fines and fees.
  • Detention while working off fines, fees, restitution and community service. Youth will no removed from their homes and placed into detention-like state programs simply to pay down fees, fines and restitution, or to work off excessive community service requirements.
  • Lack of training for administrators and staff within the juvenile justice system. HB239 stipulates that people working within the juvenile justice system should receiving training in critical areas such as juvenile development, cultural competency and implicit bias.
  • Excessive and unachievable community service assignments. The legislation states that presumptive community service assignments should be between 10 and 20 hours, rather than the virtually un-attainable 200 to 300 hour orders regularly given to youthful offenders before this reform effort.

We commend Rep. Lowry Snow, and his Senate co-sponsor Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross), - as well as the rest of their Juvenile Justice Working Group team - for carrying this important legislation across the finish line. As of this posting, HB239 has been enrolled and sent to Governor Herbert for his signature. We feel confident that he will sign the bill, given his key role in initiating the reform process.