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Juvenile Justice Reform Bill Heads To Senate After Passing Full House

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A bill to reform Utah’s Juvenile Justice system is marching forward in the Utah Legislature after hitting a few roadblocks in the House.  

House Bill 239, sponsored by Republican Representative Lowry Snow would create statewide standards for juvenile cases that aim to keep kids out of detention who maybe shouldn’t be there. Snow says Forty-two percent of kids in juvenile detention are placed there for violating court orders.

“In fairness to the rural judges, they haven’t had any other options,” Snow says. “If that’s the only tool we have, then that’s often times the way that it’s addressed.”

Snow, who previously worked as a prosecutor in southern Utah says he rarely saw an adult got to jail for contempt of court. His bill would provide additional “tools” for dealing with offenders before placing them in detention. According to the Utah Commission on Criminal Juvenile Justice, Utah spends $95,000 a year to keep a juvenile in secured custody-seventeen times the cost of probation. The bill stalled in the House on Friday, but passed with broad support on the following Tuesday after Snow made some changes.

Democratic State Representative Rebecca Chavez Houck said on the House Floor Friday, she wants to make sure there’s money to pay for the reforms.

“And that doesn’t mean just the policy framework that exists there,” Chavez Houck said. “But that we really can provide the funding there that these children and their families are going to need to heal and to move towards success.”

Chavez-Houck referenced Utah’s criminal justice overhaul that passed in 2015-changes that were greatly dependent on Medicaid expansion. Utah was unable to get a federal waiver for its small-scale Medicaid plan, however.

Republican Representative Erik Hutchings sponsored that bill in 2015.  He stressed the need for big changes at the juvenile level.

“We are sending kids off to incarceration and putting them into circumstances that we now know for a fact actually makes them worse,” Hutchings said. We’re trying to change that.”

Representative Snow says he thinks House and Senate leaders are prepared to fund both juvenile and adult criminal justice reforms this year.

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