Juvenile Justice

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We are proud to release a new report on Utah's system for ensuring that all children appearing in juvenile delinquency court are represented by a defense attorney. And we are happy to report that there is some good news to celebrate in this area of our advocacy work! 

In the past two years, the frequency of Utah children appearing in juvenile court without a defense attorney has decreased from about 33% statewide to less than 5%. This new report reveals that Utah children now almost never waive their right to an attorney.

"Who's Helping Kids in Court?" is a follow-up to our 2019 report, "And Justice For All...Kids: A Child's Right to the 'Guiding Hand of Counsel and the State of Defense Representation for Children in Utah's Juvenile Courts," which also explored the issue of whether children in Utah delinquency courts are being given the legal support to which they are entitled. 

Read and/or download the full report here. 

The right of young people to be represented by an attorney in delinquency court proceedings was established in the landmark case In Gault, 387 US 1 (1967). In that case, the Supreme Court articulated that multiple due process rights must be afforded to children who are facing charges in a juvenile court. 

Despite the clearly established rights of young people, both under Gault and in subsequent important legal decisions, many states - including Utah - have struggled for decades to put these promised protections in practice. As this update report shows, though, major policy changes made between 2018 and 2020 appear to have had a very positive impact on the practical fulfillment of Utah children’s right to an attorney.

The key findings presented in this report, for which our team of court observers viewed more than 250 distinct juvenile court hearings across the state, are as follows: 

  • Overwhelmingly, young people appearing in juvenile delinquency hearings did not waive their right to be represented by an attorney.
  • Juvenile delinquency hearings rarely proceeded without defense counsel present, regardless of where the hearing was held in the state.
  • While Utah’s juvenile court judges rarely needed to explain the right to counsel to youth appearing in their (virtual) courtrooms, they regularly reviewed other key rights.
  • Defense attorney attendance at hearings does not necessarily translate into quality legal counsel for the young people they represent.

Children who have a defense attorney almost always have better legal outcomes in delinquency court than those who don’t. Because court involvement can have lifelong impacts for youth, we have worked with many partners over the past two years to pass positive legislation and enact better practices. "Who's Helping Kids in Court?" shows that these changes, particularly the passage of SB32 during the 2019 legislative session, have worked to vastly improve Utah's ability to ensure children receive the legal representation to which they are legally entitled.

SB32, "Indigent Defense Act Amendments," created a “statutory presumption of indigency” for all youth appearing in juvenile court, eliminating for youth and their families the burdensome process of proving that they were poor enough to receive a state-appointed public defender. This means youth are less likely to appear without legal counsel in the early stages of the delinquency process. Early automatic appointment also seems to reduce opportunities for parental/familial influence over a young person’s decision to waive their right to an attorney. SB32 also ensured that youth would be less likely to appear in review hearings, where their progress on court orders is discussed, without their attorney present. SB32 made clear that only in rare circumstances would a judge release a public defender from representing a client before conclusion of the case.

Read and/or download the full report here.

In addition to our primary findings, our report also discusses the following additional conclusions: 

  • Online hearings offer several clear advantages that should be balanced against the legal and practical benefits of traditional, in-person hearings. Improvements must be made, though, to incorporate online hearings as a future option.
    • Management of professionalism, protocol and participation seemed to be a challenge in some online courtrooms.
    • Hearings were often delayed or interrupted due to technical issues.
    • Using a single Webex link for a full day of hearings created confusion, and potentially compromised youth and family privacy in sensitive situations.
    • Online-only hearings may interfere with some judges’ ability to connect with the youth appearing before them.
  • Juvenile court judges’ expertise at interacting with young people - including building rapport, interpreting youth expression and inspiring cooperation - varies widely. Some judges’ inability to communicate effectively with young people may seriously limit their capacity to positively influence children appearing in their courtroom.
  • There appear to be persistent difficulties for youth and families who require court interpreters. These challenges likely create serious equity issues for youth appearing in juvenile delinquency court.

In response to our findings, we make several recommendations in this report for policymakers, for the juvenile courts, and also for youth and their families. Those recommendations, if fulfilled, would build upon the progress Utah is already making in the administration of justice for Utah children who become court-involved. As Utah continues to successfully reduce both the size and the negative impacts of its juvenile justice system, we are pleased to report on this additional area of progress, as well as offer constructive feedback for future improvements. 

Published in News & Blog

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The state's leading child research and advocacy organization Voices for Utah Children announced its opposition to Constitutional Amendment G in an online press conference today (Monday, October 5, 2020).  

Constitutional Amendment G is the proposal to amend the Utah State Constitution to end the Constitutional earmark of all income tax revenues for education.  Since 1946 Utah has dedicated 100% of income tax revenues to education, initially defined only as K-12 education and, since 1996, including also higher education.  The State Legislature voted in March to place on the ballot the question of also allowing these funds to be used for other purposes -- specifically for programs for children and for Utahns with disabilities.  

The arguments made by proponents and opponents are summarized in an online document prepared by the state election administrators in the Lt Governor's office. According to that document, "the state spends about $600 million annually of non-income tax money on programs for children and programs that benefit people with a disability."

Voices for Utah Children CEO Maurice "Moe" Hickey explained the organization's decision to oppose the Amendment: "We believe that the proposed Amendment not only won’t solve Utah’s state budget woes, it is likely to delay the real fiscal policy changes that are needed. Over the past decade we have been continuously ranked last in the country for per pupil spending. This is a caused by our growth in number of students, combined with a lowered tax burden in the past decade. A major question we have to ask is “if the current Constitutional earmark has failed to help Utah invest more in education, how will getting rid of it improve matters?” The unfortunate reality is that getting rid of the Constitutional earmark of income tax for education does nothing to solve the real problem, which is the fact that nearly every area of state responsibility where children are impacted – education, social services, public health, and many others – is dangerously underfunded."

Health Policy Analyst Ciriac Alvarez Valle said, "Utah has one of the highest rates of uninsured children in the country at 8% or 82,000 children, and we have an even higher rate of uninsured Latino children at almost 20%. It is alarming that even during this pandemic, children and families are going without health insurance. There are so many ways to reverse this negative trend that began in 2016. Some of the solutions include investing in our kid’s healthcare. By investing in outreach and enrollment efforts especially those that are culturally and linguistically appropriate for our communities of color, we can ensure they are being reached. We also have to invest in policies that keep kids covered all year round and ensures they have no gaps in coverage. and lastly, we have to invest in covering all children regardless of their immigration status. By doing these things we can ensure that kids have a foundation for their long term health and needs. It's vital that we keep children’s health at the forefront of this issue, knowing that kids can only come to school ready to learn if they are able to get the resources they need to be healthy."

Health Policy Analyst Jessie Mandle added, "All kids need to have care and coverage in order to succeed in school. We are no strangers to the funding challenges and the many competing demands of social services funding. Without greater clarity, more detail, and planning, we are left to ask, are we simply moving the funding of children’s health services into another pool, competing with education funding, instead of prioritizing and investing in both critical areas? Sufficient funding for critical children’s services including school nurse, home visiting and early intervention, and school-based preventive care remains a challenge for our state. We have made important strides in recent years for children’s health, recognizing that kids cannot be optimal learners without optimal health. Let’s keep investing, keep moving forward together so that kids can get the education, health and wraparound services they need."

Education Policy Analyst Anna Thomas: "We often hear that UT is dead last in the nation in per pupil funding. We have also heard from such leaders as Envision Utah that millions of dollars are needed to avert an urgent and growing teacher shortage. What we talk about less is the fact that these typical conservative calculations of our state’s underfunding of education don’t include the amount the state should be paying for the full-day kindergarten programming most Utah families want, nor does it include the tens of millions our state has never bothered to spend on preschool programs to ensure all Utah children can start school with the same opportunities to succeed. Utah currently masks this underfunding with dollars from various federal programs, but this federal funding is not equitably available to meet the needs of all Utah children who deserve these critical early interventions. The state also increasingly relies on local communities to make up the difference through growing local tax burdens - which creates an impossible situation for some of our rural school districts, where local property tax will never be able to properly fund early interventions like preschool and full-day kindergarten along with everything else they are responsible for. Our lack of investment in early education is something we pay for, much less efficiently and much less wisely, later down the road, when children drop out of school, experience mental and physical health issues, and get pulled into bad decisions and misconduct. If kids aren’t able to hit certain learning benchmarks in literacy and math by third grade, their struggles in school - and often by extension outside of school - multiply. We should be investing as much as possible in our children to help ensure they have real access to future success - and can contribute to our state's future success. You don’t have to be a math whiz - third grade math is probably plenty - to see that the general arithmetic of Amendment G, and the attendant promises of somehow more investment in everything that helps kids - just doesn’t add up. We have multiple unmet early education investment obligations right now. Beyond that, we have many more needs, for children and for people with disabilities, that we must be sensitive to as a state especially during a global pandemic. How we will ensure we are investing responsibly in our children and our future, by having MORE expenses come out of the same pot of money - which the legislature tells us every year is too small to help all the Utah families we advocate for - is still very unclear to me. Until that math is made transparent to the public, we have to judge Amendment G to be, at best, half-baked in its current incarnation."

Fiscal Policy Analyst Matthew Weinstein shared information from the Tax Commission (see slide #8) showing that Utah's overall level of taxation is now at its lowest level in 50 years relative to Utahns' incomes, following multiple rounds of tax cutting. He also shared recent survey data from the Utah Foundation showing that three-fourths of Utahns oppose cutting taxes further and are ready and willing to contribute more if necessary to help solve the state's current challenges in areas like education, air quality, and transportation. He contrasted the public's understanding that there's no "free lunch" with the unrealistic election-year promises made by our political leadership -- more money for both education and social services if the public votes for Amendment G -- even though Amendment G does nothing to reverse any past tax breaks and address the state's chronic revenue shortages.

The organization shared a one-page summary of the arguments for and against the proposed Constitutional Amendment: 

Amendment G one pager 10 5 20

The organization also published a full five-page position paper that is available in pdf format

Published in Press Releases
July 30, 2020

Juvenile Justice

Dedicated to creating a more fair and equitable juvenile justice system 

Utah’s juvenile justice system has a lot to be proud of.  Thanks to legislative and community efforts over the last several years, our system has become smaller, less punitive, and more youth-centered. Youth and their families now have greater access to early interventions that prevent court-involvement, rather than only having access to support and help once misconduct occurs. State and local stakeholders utilize more evidence-based programming, and make decisions driven by data and collaboration. 

Equity, however, remains an elusive goal for Utah’s reform efforts. Despite many strong policy reforms, children of color still are overrepresented in our juvenile justice system. This is true from the first point of contact with law enforcement and other authority figures, all the way to secure care adjudications for youth who are deep in the system. Children who identify as LGBTQ+, have disabilities and come from low-income families also struggle to have their needs met within our system. 

We want to ensure that all youth have access to interventions and supports that work for them and for their families. These resources should be available early and often, before youth misbehavior becomes dangerous for the youth themselves, as well as for the broader community. Voices for Utah Children is dedicated to promoting policies and recommendations that contribute to a more fair and equitable juvenile justice system for all Utah youth.

Published in 2020 Issues
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While racial and ethnic disparities in the system have always been part of the reform conversation, equitable treatment and representation of all children (regardless of race and/or ethnicity) was not an explicit goal. So, four years later, how has our juvenile justice system improved with regard to equity?

The more pointed question is, has our system improved at all when it comes to the equitable treatment of children of color?

Voices for Utah Children is proud to announce the release of our new report, “Striving for Equity in Utah’s Juvenile Justice System,” an update to a collaborative 2017 report on racial and ethnic disparities in Utah’s juvenile justice system. 

Co-authored by policy analysts Ciriac Alvarez Valle and Anna Thomas, “Striving for Equity” shows that while enormous strides have been made in the past four years toward improving Utah’s juvenile justice system, equitable treatment of youth of color remains elusive. While the system overall has shrunk in size - youth arrests, referrals and petitions to court and admissions to locked to detention are all on the decline - youth who identify as Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) comprise a growing portion of the court-involved population. 

In our writing of this report, we were unsurprised to learn the following: when efforts to achieve equity are not intentional and direct, equitable outcomes remain elusive. 

While Utah’s juvenile justice system has decreased in size, overall, disparities between different racial/ethnic groups mostly have gotten worse. For example: 

  • In 2015, white children made up about 75% of the school-aged youth population in Utah, and only 58% of petitions to juvenile court. In 2019, white children were 74.2% of the general population, and only 51.8% of petitions to juvenile court. 
  • In 2015, Black children made up slightly more than 1% of the school-aged youth population in Utah - but 5% of all petitions to juvenile court. In 2019, Black children were still close to just 1% of the general population...but made up 6.9% of all petitions to juvenile court. 
  • In 2019, children of color made up the majority of youth in both locked detention and secure care facilities in Utah. In four years, non-white children grew from 43% of locked detention admissions to nearly 51%, and from a disappointing 54% of the secure care population to a staggering 61.2%. 

The report - which uses 2019 data from the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Division of Juvenile Justice Services, the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and the Bureau of Crime Statistics - also explore state progress on recommendations made in the 2017 report, and makes new recommendations for policymakers and community members to pursue in 2020. 

Utah deserves plenty of accolades for juvenile justice system improvements so far; making equity a more explicit goal in the state’s system reform efforts could position Utah’s juvenile justice system as the best in the nation. 

Special thanks to the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs for its support in the development of this report (including layout and design by Ephraim Kum, community engagement intern for the MCA), and also to the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice for its support (specifically from UBJJ/JJOC Co-Directors Kayley Richards and Van Nguyen) in obtaining and clarifying specific data points. 

Published in News & Blog
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