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

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Our organization recognizes the importance of standing against policies that jeopardize the well-being of Utah’s children. We believe that regular community members have the right and responsibility to influence decisions about policies that affect their lives. 

The ability of everyday Utahns to influence public policy directly, through ballot initiatives, should be part of our state’s democratic process. However, the state legislature for years has passed laws that make it more difficult for members of the public to pose questions to their fellow voters statewide, by conducting ballot initiatives.  

This year, the campaign to suppress public ballot initiatives takes the form of two complementary bills, both sponsored by Rep. Jason Kyle (R-Huntsville). HJR14, “Proposal to Amend Utah Constitution - Statewide Initiatives,” would amend our state constitution so that a simple majority of Utah voters can no longer approve new or expanded funding streams for state programs. The bill increases the threshold for a winning ballot initiative from 50% to 60%, when the ballot initiative seeks to increase revenue for state programs through a new tax or by expanding an existing tax. HB284, “Initiative Amendments,”  would require a ballot initiative that increases taxes to specify where the money will come from to pay for the tax increase. 

Ballot Initiatives in Utah Are Already Nearly Impossible

Utah is already one of the most difficult states in which to conduct a public ballot initiative. Whether the ballot initiative reflects the desires of Utahns to revert to our old state flag, or to expand Medicaid coverage to more people in need, organizers face high barriers before the voting public can weigh in. 

For example. Utah law currently requires ballot initiative organizers to collect a total of 134,298 signatures, and they must meet specific signature thresholds in at least 26 out of 29 Senate districts. (between about 3,000 and 5,600 handwritten signatures per district, depending on the Senate district). 

Even when organizers manage to clear all the hurdles to get a public ballot initiative before Utah voters, the Legislature has shown that it feels no obligation to respect voters’ desires. Ballot initiatives to legalize medical cannabis, expand Medicaid coverage to more Utahsn, and to create an independent redistricting commission (to push back on legislative gerrymandering)  all successfully passed in 2018. The legislature walked back all of these efforts, either completely undoing, or mangling the implementation of, each successful initiative.  

Why Voices Opposes HJR14 & HB284

Decisions made at the state level regarding investments in education, healthcare, childcare, and other essential services have profound consequences for future generations. By adding yet more hurdles for members of the public seeking to impact state laws, HJR14 and HB284 risk undermining the public’s constitutional right to directly petition their government. 

If HJR14 is approved, the proposed amendment will appear on voter ballots this November. Utah voters will be able to decide whether to limit their own access to this incredibly important tool for democratic influence over public policies that affect us all. 

Voices for Utah Children opposes the passage of HJR14 and HB284, recognizing the importance of preserving Utahns’ right to safeguard the interests of its children through ballot initiatives. This is particularly important now, as the legislature increasingly ignores public comment, public outcry and public sentiment when introducing and passing their bills. 

Your voice matters! You can participate in the democratic process right now by weighing in on these bills, either by providing a public comment during the committee hearings or by writing your legislator to express your objections.

VIEW OUR LEGISLATIVE TRACKER TO LEARN MORE!

 

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Representative Susan Pulsipher’s HB 153: Child Care Revisions narrowly passed the Utah State Legislature on February 28, 2024, and was signed by the Governor on March 14, 2024.

Initially proposed as a child tax credit expansion initiative, HB 153 has evolved into a more complex bill with significant implications. This FAQ aims to address questions about the passed bill and explain its key components.

 What does HB 153 do?

There are three main components to this bill:

  1. Child Tax Credit Expansion: HB 153 expands Utah’s child tax credit to include 4-year-olds. Currently, children aged 1-3 are eligible if their family meets certain income criteria and has a tax liability. This expansion will make the credit available to 0.4% more families, benefiting 1.1% more children, with an average annual tax savings of $456 per eligible family.
  2. Unlicensed Provider Capacity Expansion: HB 153 increases the cap on the number of unrelated children an unlicensed provider can care for from 6 to 8 (current law remains at 10 children cap if also caring for related children). With this change, Utah now ranks as the second-worst state nationally in unregulated care capacity, trailing only South Dakota.
  3. New Unlicensed Provider Oversight: In response to concerns from the child care community, HB 153 introduces new requirements for unlicensed providers. They must now undergo criminal background checks through the Office of Child Care Licensing. Additionally, a new stipulation limits the number of children under 3 years old being cared for to 2. Previously, unlicensed providers operated without formal oversight or state requirements.

When will this go into effect?

Each component of the bill will go into effect at a different time:

  1. Child Tax Credit Expansion: Initially introduced under HB 170 in 2023, the Child Tax Credit, applicable to children aged 1-3, cannot be claimed until families file their 2024 taxes, in 2025. For families with eligible 4-year-olds, the credit won't be claimable until they file their 2025 taxes, in 2026.
  2. Unlicensed Provider Capacity Expansion: Starting May 1, 2024, unlicensed providers will be permitted to care for up to 8 unrelated children.
  3. New Unlicensed Provider Oversight: Background check requirements and restrictions on the number of children under the age of 3 in care will take effect on July 1, 2024.

How will this new oversight of unlicensed providers function under HB 153?

The Office of Child Care Licensing (OCCL) within the Department of Health and Human Services already oversees residential child care licenses, which are required for providers caring for 9 or more children. OCCL also oversees the Residential Certificate program which is currently required for providers caring for 7-8 children. HB 153 now makes Residential Certification optional. 

Additionally, HB 153 essentially adds a new layer of regulated care, mandating background checks for providers caring for under 8 children who do not hold a license or certificate. Current law does not require background checks for anyone caring for under 6 children. HB 153 mandates the same level of background checks as licensed child care providers, covering all staff, volunteers, and individuals older than 12 residing in the residence.

The process and enforcement mechanisms are still unclear. The bill directs the Department of Health and Human Services to establish rules for criminal background check submission. Similar requirements exist in Idaho, but enforcement is limited to instances where an unlicensed program is reported to the state.

Stay tuned for further guidance from the Office of Child Care Licensing regarding this process.

Will this increase access to child care? Will it decrease the cost of child care?

The answer is uncertain. While the state has previously expanded unlicensed child care capacity, the lack of tracking of unlicensed child care makes it impossible to gauge effectiveness.

Regulations are often blamed for high child care costs and limited availability, but studies show no direct correlation between state regulations and child care supply levels. Utah's Office of Child Care Licensing continuously strives to make licensing as easy to obtain as possible without compromising quality and safety standards.

There's no evidence to suggest this change will alleviate the child care crisis. In fact, experts predict it may decrease available child care by incentivizing programs to downsize and forego licenses.

Is this licensing change safe?

Just as there are undoubtedly reputable unlicensed providers, incidents can occur in licensed facilities as well. However, licensed providers benefit from established systems for monitoring and support, facilitating continuous improvement. The challenge with unlicensed providers lies in the lack of oversight—without clear regulations, identifying potential risks becomes difficult. 

Unfortunately, the impact of unlicensed child care expansion often goes unrecognized until horrible things happen and it's too late. Without state oversight, it’s important for parents to learn about the differences between licensed and unlicensed child care. Below is a comparison chart outlining key distinctions, but we encourage parents to leverage OCCL's resources for informed decision-making.

  Residential Certificate Child Care Provider  Unlicensed Child Care Provider Under HB 153
Background checks required for all child care staff, volunteers, and household members 12+  X X
(if enforced) 
Inspections of facility for safety  X  
2.5 hours of preservice training*  X  
10 hours of annual training*   X  
Always requires at least one caregiver present to hold current pediatric first aid and CPR certification  X  
Public access to rule violations available to parents  X  
Verified local business license, health department clearance, and fire clearance (when required by city)  X  
Must carry liability insurance or disclose lack thereof in writing to parents X  
Requires quality equipment, materials, and play areas that are safe, clean, adequate in size  X  
Verified safe caregiver-to-child ratios X  
Requires that no provider use corporal punishment or emotional abuse to discipline a child X  
Requires staff to mandatorily report any instance of suspected child abuse or neglect X  

 

* Training covers CPR, First Aid, home safety, emergency prevention, shaken baby syndrome prevention, sudden infant death syndrome prevention, care for children with disabilities, infectious disease control, child development, homelessness detection, and child abuse awareness.

This FAQ will be regularly updated with new questions and any developments from the Office of Child Care Licensing. If you have additional questions, please don't hesitate to reach out to Jenna at .

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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.

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