Utah Passes Comprehensive Youth Justice Reforms
2017 is shaping up to be big year for youth justice reform in Utah with the passage of several progressive bills. NJJN member, Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys (UJDA), helped pass a comprehensive reform package, HB 239, which limits the amount of time youth can spend in detention centers and caps fines and fees. In addition, Utah passed legislation which amended the state’s Romeo and Juliet laws and bolstered juvenile defense.
Utah’s comprehensive package HB 239 was the result of the Pew Charitable Trusts Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which charged a state task force with looking at Utah’s juvenile justice data and developing recommendations to improve public safety outcomes. The data showed extreme racial disparities in the system resulting in a report released by the ACLU of UT that detailed the disparities and recommended policies to address the criminalization of black and brown youth. While the final bill made significant strides in addressing disparities by eliminating fines and fees that led to many youth of color being detained, some of the recommendations remain unrealized and provide a roadmap for future reforms.
The House and Senate unanimously voted to amend the state’s code for “Romeo and Juliet” cases. Utah now identifies a class of offenses as “unlawful adolescent sexual activity” for which there are gradient charges based on the age differential between the youth, but for which no youth is required to register on the sex offender registry.
Finally, Utah recognized the need to strengthen representation for youth, by expanding the state’s indigent defense commission to include a juvenile defense representative and a parental defense attorney. The commission, which oversees county funds for defense, also expanded the use of the funds to be used for juvenile defense.
UJDA Executive Director Pam Vickery, expressed her excitement for the sessions’ progress and work to come. “I am really proud of Utah for reviewing the full scope of the justice system and committing to reforms on multiple fronts. Utah has taken steps in the right direction, and the process has brought to light addition areas ripe for reform.”