State Policy

Our team at Voices for Utah Children is proud to support juvenile justice reforms in Utah that are more effective and efficient for all involved. Recently, we’ve actively engaged in advocacy for reform since 2016, when state leadership embarked on a full-scale evaluation of Utah’s juvenile justice system at that time. 

As the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government convened a wide-ranging group of experienced professionals and system experts, Voices joined with multiple other community-based non-profit organizations to articulate “Guiding Principles for Juvenile Justice Reform in Utah.”

Our number one guiding principle for reform was to “promote the critical role of early, non-criminal-justice intervention in the lives of young people, for the purpose of avoiding future justice involvement.”

This principle leads us to approach juvenile justice policy analysis and advocacy not by asking, “What is wrong with these kids?” but by asking, “What is going on with these kids?”

The vast majority of young people engaged in misconduct are acting out due to underlying issues that have not been addressed, such as:

  • Serious childhood trauma such as sexual, physical and emotional abuse, including harms caused by another child;
  • Undiagnosed and unsupported learning disabilities or mental health issues;
  • Homelessness and housing insecurity;
  • Family disruptions resulting in lack of support and supervision, such as substance abuse by primary guardians or absence of caring adults due to refugee or immigration status;
  • Food insecurity and other poverty-related challenges; and more. 

Why Early Intervention?

Ensuring early intervention is the most cost-effective and productive way to ensure that children never engage in criminal activity to begin with. This is the best path not only for a young person who might have otherwise harmed other people and their own community, but for those who might have been harmed.

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(From Utah Juvenile Justice & Youth Services FY2022 Presentation)

Our communities are safest when children don’t act out in the first place. That is one reason that our organization advocates so strenuously for all Utah children to have access to food, shelter, health care and early education opportunities. These are preventative factors.

We also advocate for public policies that engender greater stability in the homes of young people, so they have fewer risk factors for antisocial behavior. Such policies include cash assistance for struggling families with children, access to health care for adults in the household, and help finding and paying for quality childcare so parents can work.

Harshly punishing young people with hundreds of hours of community service, fines they can’t pay, or isolation in a locked detention facility with other troubled children does not cultivate a sense of accountability and remorse.

In fact, over-punishment can actually make children more likely to reoffend, which is terrible for public safety.

Providing early access to interventions for young people who are struggling produces much better results. Harsher penalties also do not actually help those harmed by a youth’s antisocial behavior. A better approach is to ensure that as many young people as possible have their basic needs met, so their reasons for acting out are greatly diminished.

Children Are Not Adults

The juvenile justice system is structured differently than the adult criminal justice system, because children are not the same as adults. Research from the past several decades shows that the brains of most young people do not stop growing and developing until they are in their mid-20s. For this reason, our legal system has chosen to approach juvenile justice differently, with a greater emphasis on intervention and rehabilitation. 

Most teenagers get into trouble for something during their formative years. Shoplifting, sexting, experimenting with drugs, getting in physical fights and skipping school are common mistakes made by young people finding their way into adulthood. Penalties for children should take into account that almost every human being does “dumb stuff” while growing up. Over-criminalization of these behaviors do not prevent young people from getting lured into them. Teenagers rarely know the legal penalties for their misconduct, and they lack the judgment to fully weigh how their future will be impacted by their behavior. 

Disparities in the System  

One serious issue that juvenile justice reform in Utah still has not been able to address, are the dramatic racial disparities that occur at each step of our juvenile justice system.

Research shows that children of color are much more likely to receive harsh penalties for misconduct than their white peers. What is understood as “age appropriate acting out” when a white child does it, is more often interpreted as “evidence of criminal character” when that very same behavior is exhibited by a child or color.

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(From Striving for Racial Equity in Utah's Juvenile Justice System, 2020)

We object to policy proposals structured around harsh penalties, because we know those penalties are much more likely to hurt children and families of color, due to persistent racial injustice in our society. We believe that moving forward in a different way offers the best chance to address these disparities. 

A Better Way Forward

Not all misconduct can be addressed by low-level interventions. Some children cause serious harm to others. There are children who leave families mourning and in pain. Taking a life, or perpetrating sexual abuse, are serious crimes for which our most serious interventions, including detention and secure care, should be reserved. Those who are hurt by serious offenses deserve real support, such as counseling and financial support, not just dramatic penalties that risk creating public safety issues for others in the future. 

We try to advocate for policies that are shaped by the most up-to-date research, expert recommendations and actual data. Sometimes, this information changes, and we must reshape the ways in which we pursue the most positive outcomes for children.

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(From 2023 Juvenile Reform Report, System Trends 2023 Juvenile Reform Report, System Trends)

Our state’s own research shows that the “old way” of doing things is unnecessarily expensive, is ineffective at reducing reoffending, and is more likely to engender resentment than remorse. Going backward will not help Utah children. We have to keep moving forward, with new knowledge and best practices, in order to best serve our kids. 

If you have questions about this blog post, please contact  or anna@utahchildrenAnnual Juvenile Reform Reports can be accessed through our state's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice website here

Published in News & Blog

Governor Cox unveiled his budget last week, and the general direction of the budget is positive. Voices for Utah Children is interested in some specific components of the budget that directly impact Utah children and their families:

Public Education

$854 million increase, including a 5% jump in per-pupil funding and $55 million for rural schools

This is a much-needed investment in public education. We support the focus on rural schools and are anxious to see the details as they emerge. Public education consistently polls as a top priority for Utahns of all political parties and backgrounds.

Support for Utah Families

 $4.7 million to expand Utah’s child tax credit and $5 million for accessible child care

We appreciate the fact that the Governor has begun to address the urgent needs of Utah families with young children. However, both allocations fall far short of the amount required to truly support and elevate these young families’ current needs. A truly impactful child tax credit would require an investment of at least $130 million, and the benefits in reducing child poverty in Utah would be substantial. Our recent report on child care in Utah clearly illustrates the need for bold action to support families in the workforce, who are struggling with the cost and unavailability of child care. The Governor’s $5M project will help very few Utah families and does not address the true need.

Housing

$128 million for homeless shelters and $30 million for deeply affordable housing

We support the Governor in his effort to better support the homeless residents of our state. We encourage a greater focus on expanding support for homeless children specifically. Early care and education opportunities for young children as well as more supportive programs for their parents and caregivers are critical to helping families find stable housing and better future opportunities. Investing in deeply affordable housing will help many Utah families.

Behavioral/Mental Health 

$8 million for behavioral and mental health

This is not enough to address the current mental health needs of Utahns – in particular, those of our children and the folks tasked with raising them. We need more mental health professionals and greater access to services. We know this is a major concern for the Governor and we encourage increased strategic investment in this area.

It is also important to acknowledge and applaud some items the Governor wisely left out of his proposed budget:

No Proposed Tax Cuts 

Utahns want to see more invested in our children while they are young, to prevent greater challenges later in life. It is our children who suffer most, when politicians toss our tax dollars away on polices that mostly benefit the wealthiest 1% of Utah households.

No Proposed Funding for Vouchers

Public funds should not be redirected to private entities. Utah needs an annual audit of the current program, to assess who is benefitting from school vouchers. In other states, the results are not good – vouchers are looking more and more like a tax break for wealthy families.


Bold Investments Needed for Utah's Children

Governor Cox's budget focuses on increasing funding for education, families, and affordable housing.

These are all areas where we believe bold investment is needed. We support the Governor in addressing these issues, but cannot overlook how this budget falls short in the face of the ongoing struggles faced by Utah families with children.  

We encourage our Legislature to use the Governor’s budget as a roadmap and increase the allocations to the amount needed.

Published in News & Blog

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Voices for Utah Children is proud to have co-hosted the momentous unveiling of the new State CHIP Program during our morning press conference. We are grateful to have worked with Senator Luz Escamilla (D-Salt Lake City) and Representative Jim Dunnigan (R-Taylorsville) to support the passage of SB217: ChIldren’s Health Coverage Amendments that led to the creation of this program.

Voices for Utah Children's goal for every child in Utah to have health insurance and access to high-quality health care.

In our state, an estimated 7.9% of children in Utah do not have health insurance, with greater disparities amongst rural children and Latino children, placing Utah as 37th in the nation for insured children.

The State CHIP program will play a crucial role in bridging this gap by providing comprehensive healthcare coverage, so that children can access the medical care they need when they need to lead a healthier and more secure life. 

This State CHIP Program is one piece of that puzzle.

The State CHIP program provides newly eligible children with comprehensive healthcare coverage, including well-child exams, immunizations, doctor visits, prescriptions, mental health services, and more, supporting more kids to have the opportunity to grow and thrive because of the access to coverage.

We are excited to continue working with Senator Escamilla, Rep. Jim Dunnnigan, and our 100% Kids Coverage Coalition, community and faith leaders, healthcare systems and providers, and more to outreach to all of our Utah families throughout the state so children get the health coverage and care they need. We know that this program will make a positive impact on many Utah families statewide and will get us closer to the goal of having all Utah kids covered.

Let’s get all Utah kiddos covered!

For more information about State CHIP for non-US citizens starting January 1, 2024 click here.

For more information about the new State CHIP program visit: https://chip.health.utah.gov/.

For more information about our 100% Kids Coverage Coalition visit: https://www.100percentkids.health/.

Published in News & Blog