John Florez: Juvenile court’s original intent reaffirmed

Published: Saturday, May 24 2014 9:11 a.m. MDT

Outside Judge Sharon McCully's courtroom in Salt Lake City. The passage of HB105, amending the Serious Youth Offender Law, represents Utah lawmakers’ recognition that past get-tough policies in dealing with youth crime were often counterproductive.

Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

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Kudos to the 2013 Utah Legislature for reaffirming the state’s commitment to the original intent of the juvenile court — the minor’s best interest and public safety. And the bill passed unanimously in both houses, led by Rep. Lowry Snow and Sen. Lyle Hillyard.

The passage of HB105, amending the Serious Youth Offender Law, represents Utah lawmakers’ recognition that past get-tough policies in dealing with youth crime were often counterproductive. The original purpose of the juvenile court system, created in Chicago in 1899, seems to have been forgotten. Prior to that time, children who committed crimes were housed with adult criminals, mistreated, and left prison leading a life of crime they learned while in prison.

The previous Serious Offender Law had made it possible to almost automatically try minors in adult court, instead of the juvenile court, without considering the best interest of the minor. HB105 reaffirmed the state’s commitment to act in the minor’s interest and the public’s safety. It simply gives the juvenile court the “discretion” of deciding whether the minor should be bound over to the adult court or remain with the juvenile court, based on the best interest of the minor and public safety.

Rep. Snow pointed out chances for minor offenders to become rehabilitated in the juvenile justice system are greater than the adult system that is not able to give minors the help needed. The Legislature understood it was in the minor’s and state’s interest to make an investment in providing the necessary resources to help keep minors from committing further crimes.

In 1974, President Ford created the Advisory Commission on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, on which I was a member, mandated to review how best to prevent minors from being housed with adults, the deinstitutionalization of youths, prevention, and focus on community-based programs. HB105 appears consistent with that mandate.

Utah’s juvenile court judges have the responsibility to adjudicate and are able to seek the assistance of probation staff to develop disposition plans to help minors succeed in the community. Part of the purpose for the juvenile court was based on the understanding that the cognitive development of minors is not fully developed, and they should not be treated as adults. Having been a juvenile probation officer, I have seen juvenile court judges who have an understanding of adolescent growth make thoughtful decisions about helping minors while still protecting the public. Judges ought to have the time to review progress of cases and make changes as deemed necessary.

Utah juvenile court judges have the availability of trained staff with a background in human behavior to assist and seek recommendations regarding disposition plans for minors. The selection of juvenile court judges ought to be based not only on their knowledge of the law, but also on empathy and a willingness to seek recommendations from those trained in adolescent development.

While lawmakers understood punishment is needed, they also saw that juvenile judges should have discretion in deciding whether a minor can be deterred from a life of crime by remaining in juvenile court, or bound over to the adult court. Legislators also understood that more resources may be needed up front rather than the back end.

The new legislation renews the commitment of the state to the minor’s best interest and the public’s safety. Making sure it happens will be up to juvenile court judges.

Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee, as Utah industrial commissioner and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and on the Commission on Hispanic Education. Email: jdflorez@comcast.net

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