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Protecting the Bill of Rights in Utah since 1958

It’s True: Utah Locks Up Kids For Missing School.

26 October 2016 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

Screen Shot 2016 10 26 at 1.19.45 PMEach year, Utah’s Juvenile Justice system takes hundreds of kids out of their homes for “crimes” like truancy, alcohol possession/consumption, and low-level retail theft.

This is one of the many shocking truths revealed by the state’s Juvenile Justice Working Group’s current engagement with the Pew Public Safety and Performance Project. This process of reviewing and analyzing Utah’s juvenile justice system, to identify possible reforms, began earlier this year. The work will result in reform legislation to be presented during the 2017 legislative session.

Here are a few more (painful, in our opinion) revelations from the data analysis of our juvenile justice system. You can verify all these conclusions by reviewing the results of the Juvenile Justice Working Group’s data collection efforts: System Analysis: Part 1; System Analysis: Part 2; and Follow-up Data.

  • Arrests of kids in Utah went down 33% between 2002 and 2012, but our arrest rate of juveniles is still higher than the national average. Property crime, drug offenses and “status offenses” (violating curfew, missing school, running away) are driving our high arrest rate of kids.
  • Very few young people who move through Utah’s juvenile justice system are ever properly evaluated for learning disabilities, mental illness or trauma. Not surprisingly, most “low risk” kids who enter the system are rated as “high risk” when they exit, as their complex mental and emotional needs remain unaddressed.
  • Rural kids are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, particularly when it comes to detention and out-of-home placements. In many cases, rural judges and Youth Probation Officers admit that they overuse detention and secure care as options, because alternatives in the community – such as in-home family counseling and youth courts - don’t exist.
  • Black kids make up only about 1% of the overall youth population in our state. But they represent 12% of the kids who get sent to DCFS (Dept. of Child & Family Services) placements through the juvenile justice system. That means they are removed from their homes and placed with “foster/proctor families” as a consequence of some kind of “criminal” offense.
  • In Utah’s Third Judicial District – that is Salt Lake County, people – Latino/Hispanic kids make up 24% of the youth population. But Latino/Hispanic kids make up 52% of all the youth who get sent to Juvenile Justice Services’ “secure care” (jail for children). There are literally, by the numbers, more brown kids locked up than white kids in Utah’s most “progressive” county.
  • In Utah’s rural Eighth District – encompassing Duchesne, Uintah and Daggett Counties – Native American children make up 9% of the overall youth population. However, 41% of kids in JJS secure care – and 24% of kids sent to out-of-home “community” placements – are Native American.

There are many people currently working in our system who care deeply about young people, including the members of the state-convened Juvenile Justice Working Group. The system itself, however, is currently a patchwork of outmoded philosophies, under-examined programs, and unrealistic expectations about punishment and culpability.  

Our group of community stakeholders – who worked together to develop these Guiding Principles for Juvenile Justice Reform in Utah – believes that Utah needs a new vision for juvenile justice. We believe that our juvenile justice system should be focused on the needs of the young people within it, not built to serve and convenience powerful adult decision-makers.

Our system should be fair, consistent, compassionate and responsive to the unique needs of every kid. Our response to “delinquent acts” committed by kids should be to ask, “What is going on with this young person?” We should use formal assessments to ensure that we have clear information about the needs and challenges that may lie behind certain behaviors. And then we must work with the child, their family, educators, counselors and others to support a better outcome.

The problems in our system are serious, but not insurmountable, if we move forward with a coherent new vision. The ACLU of Utah and other groups will be looking forward to robust recommendations from the official Juvenile Justice Working Group in the coming weeks. We will likely support those recommendations, and we hope to help pass whatever legislation will be based upon them.

In addition, our community stakeholder group will release its own recommendations for reform in January 2017. Our hope is that these recommendations will complement those of the official Juvenile Justice Working Group, while also building a plan for future reforms.

If you or your organization would like to help us with our efforts, please don’t hesitate to contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..