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Utah Lawmakers Weighing Juvenile Justice Reforms

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Two years after Utah’s criminal justice system overhaul, a state lawmaker is pushing for major reforms at the juvenile level.

Twenty-one-year old Christian Quinonez landed in the juvenile justice system at 14 after he took LSD and smashed a row of windows. He spent months working off $6000 in fines and restitution. And, despite clean drug tests and good reports, he was sent to live at Genesis Youth Center for 90 days because he couldn’t make the money. 

“Clearly I had a lot of things to be assessed,” Quinonez says. “I just ran down the street breaking windows on drugs. And the first thing that was being talked about was about how I was going to be in detention and how I need to pay back these community service hours and how they’re going to send me to work programs. Like, there was little discussion on me getting a drug evaluation or asking what’s going on at home?”

Quinonez’ mother was single and working two jobs. After the window incident, she had to pay for her son to stay at Genesis to work off his debts. Quinonez says he felt terrible about it. And upset because the arrangement didn’t make a lot of sense.

Utah Republican Representative Lowry Snow wants to change the way juvenile cases are handled to keep young people at home and out of the system whenever possible. He says there are racial disparities in how individual cases are handled and also disparities from one region of the state to another. His bill, House Bill 239 would create statewide standards for juvenile cases that focus on diverting young people out of the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Youth offenders do better to the extent that we can keep them in their home and provide counselling services to them and also to their parents,” Snow says. “We get better results, especially with low-risk and low-level offenders, less recidivism and of course we’re not spending state resources for expensive community residential treatment or detention centers.”

House Bill 239 passed the House Judiciary Committee unanimously and is scheduled to be heard on the House floor. 

Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.
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