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Fewer Juveniles Are Entering Utah's Justice System, But Racial Disparities Are Growing

Photo of a room with a bed
Jon Reed
A room at the Decker Lake Youth Center, a long-term secure care facility in West Valley.

Utah’s juvenile justice system has come a long way since 2016, when a state analysis found it was locking up most minors for low-level offenses and keeping them in detention for too long.

But after a series of sweeping reforms, Utah now incarcerates fewer kids than other states and diverts more of them from the juvenile court system, as well as gives them better access to supportive services. 

The nonprofit advocacy group Voices For Utah Children detailed those changes in a new report released Thursday, but found the system still has one glaring failure: it’s not fair. 

The authors’ analysis of the state’s arrest and incarceration data found that children of color are more likely to be arrested, petitioned to court and given more serious punishments than their white peers. White children, who seemed to have benefitted most by the state’s reforms, are also more likely to be offered alternatives to official court involvement.

White youths’ proportion of overall arrests dropped from 70% in 2014 to 58% in 2019, the report found, while arrests of non-white youths’ went up from 30% in 2014 to 42.3% in 2019.

Those disparities only get worse as kids move deeper into the system. More than half of those in secure care facilities were kids of color, even though they only make up about 26% of Utah’s youth population. 

“Even though we try to make objective decisions and safeguards, they haven't worked because there is a lot of discretion and opportunities for people's biases to come out,” said report author Ciriac Alvarez.

The report lays out some of the complex reasons for how and why the disparities exist, though Alvarez said one major component is that children of color often don’t have anyone who can advocate on their behalf. 

Their parents might work multiple jobs and may not be able to make it to the court. Or they might speak another language, and can’t communicate with a judge or probation officers. 

Co-author Anna Thomas said that can sometimes lead to harsher punishments for youth. Given the volume of people that they’re dealing with, judges often have to make assumptions about kids and their families. 

A common one is that if parents show up in court or are active in their kid’s case, it suggests the kid has a good family situation and can get better. But if parents don't show up, it’s assumed there's a lack of investment. 

That, in turn, fuels a vicious cycle. Because parents and kids of color know the disparities exist, they’re often hesitant to engage. 

“We heard that from a bunch of parents who had siblings go through the system and then were afraid for their own kids,” Thomas said. “Their past experience with the system is that it is enormously unfair and it doesn't matter what they do any way, they'll be treated differently.”

Not only does that make parents less likely to advocate for their children, research has shown it also makes the kids themselves less likely to change their behavior.

“We have to have the juvenile justice system that embodies and models the types of values that we're asking kids to espouse,” Thomas said. “Otherwise, it's just always going to look hypocritical and it's gonna be really hard for kids to work with that cognitive dissonance.”

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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