Sunday, 22 October 2017 20:22

New juvenile justice laws offer youth offenders diversion programs for low-level offenses

by Marilyn Shelton

A new bill, House Bill 239 Juvenile Justice Amendments, offers diversion programs as alternatives to incarceration for Utah youth offenders who commit minor offenses. The focus is improving outcomes for youth of all races through cost effective community intervention. The amendments, signed by Governor Gary Herbert during the 2017 General Session of the Utah State Legislature, relate to low-level, non-violent, misdemeanor infractions – such as disorderly conduct, possession of tobacco, or violating curfew – and places limits on the time youth spend in residential detention centers. The bill will take full effect by July of next year, with some of its provisions already effective as of March 24 of this year.

The provisions to the bill were recommended after a research-based, data-driven assessment of the state's juvenile justice system, led by the Utah Juvenile Justice Working Group, who stated in their report that “more than 80 percent of youth entering the court system for the first time are low-level offenders with minor infractions who pose a low risk of reoffending.” The report also stated that out-of-home-placement for youth costs up to 17 times more than community supervision and that youth who have never committed a felony and who are placed out-of-home in secure confinement have a higher likelihood of reoffending than those who remain at home. 

The report found that African-American youth made up five percent of new misdemeanor cases coming into the system, but nearly three times that percentage were placed in Department of Child and Family Services custody for delinquency.

“One of the things that [our] study group was surprised by was the racial disparity that existed in the dispositions that were handed down by the courts on juvenile offenders,” said Representative V. Lowry Snow, (R) of St. George and HB 239 sponsor.

“Part of the legislation is to reallocate resources so that we can have truancy centers, mobile crisis units that work with parents and youth that need additional assistance. Primarily it's about providing those kinds of support services directly to the young people and their parents rather than utilizing the court system or utilizing detention. You’ll see in the data, the outcomes are actually worse for the youth that have greater court involvement, particularly detention, for low-level offenses. There's a greater likelihood of reoffending. The primary thrust of the amendment legislation is to intervene with our young people early – in a way that we get good outcomes,” said Representative Snow.

According to the Utah Board of Juvenile Justice, the H.B. 239 Juvenile Justice Amendments mandates that a child cannot serve more than 30 days for one offense, cannot be placed in an out-of-home residential “service work” program to complete community service hours, nor complete more than 36 hours of service. The new law also states that a child can only be ordered to complete a treatment program after a needs assessment test is completed by the court and that after receiving a disposition, a minor cannot be locked up for more than 72 hours while a decision is made about which program or placement is appropriate for the child. 

The law also prohibits referrals to law enforcement or juvenile court for truancy.

Yandary Chatwin, Executive Director of Communications and Community Relations for the Salt Lake School City District, said of the changes, "Teachers are encouraged to do home visits (for students with truancy issues) at the beginning of the year. That way they get to know students' families. They'll get to know if there's an issue contributing to the truancy, for example, transportation or bullying. There are a whole lot of reasons that can contribute to a student being absent that aren't the students’ fault." 

She said that if students don't return to school, letters are sent out and if the student doesn't return after that, an additional home visit from a teacher or administrator is the next step. H.B. 239 provides for the requesting of alternative aftercare services by youth and their families, such as therapy or job training or the utilization of a mobile crisis unit.  

"Mobile crisis units are a partnership with the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute, and they get called in and they're community partners. Let's say the student was possibly suicidal. Basically, the school may not have the resources in-house, so the partner is called in," Chatwin said. 

Another requested alternative aftercare service is participation in Peer Court, which is staffed by high school volunteers from schools around Salt Lake City who are trained to hear cases. When referred youth complete the program, they will avoid obtaining a juvenile record, according to Peer Court Program Director, Kayley Richards. 

According to the Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee, the amendments to H.B. 239, including the alternative diversion programs, will yield an estimated $58 million in averted costs over five years and see lower rates of youth recidivism.