SALT LAKE CITY — With an Aug. 1 implementation looming, some Utah educators are concerned about the practical implications of a new initiative that substantially changes how youths are treated in the juvenile justice system.
One significant change is that schools will no longer be able to refer students to law enforcement or juvenile court for truancy or school-based status offenses, infractions or class C misdemeanors that occur on school grounds. Instead, the issues are to be handled by the schools themselves, peer courts or other diversion approaches.
Backers of sweeping reforms to the state's juvenile justice system, which were adopted by Utah lawmakers with the passage of HB239 earlier this year, say the initiative will save money and result in better outcomes for youths.
The legislation includes recommendations of the Utah Juvenile Justice Working Group, which was made up of juvenile court judges, attorneys, legislators, state department heads and others appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert.
But legislators, educators, law enforcement, child welfare workers, prosecutors and others indicated during a recent meeting in Cache County that the sea change of laws and practices is worrisome, said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.
"How in the world can a school district that’s fighting like crazy to keep their teachers, trying to fund salary increases and those problems, dealing with suicide prevention, all of the crises, problems public ed has, now we suddenly thrust this back on them?" Hillyard said.
While he acknowledged that the initiative is not as comprehensive as originally envisioned, Hillyard said stakeholders are feeling a lot of pressure now that they will need to address more issues with already lean resources.
"There was really a feeling they were left out there stranded without a lot of help and with an Aug. 1 deadline coming. They’re really concerned about it," he said Wednesday during a meeting of the Utah Legislature's Education Interim Committee.
Just as one of the rationales of reforming the juvenile justice system was to stop funneling students who are truant into juvenile justice programs where they interact with more serious youth offenders, some educators and agency heads in Cache County said they are likewise concerned that dealing with lower-level offenders in schools or other community resources means they will remain in school with students who have not violated rules or laws.
Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, sponsor of HB239, said the legislation is comprehensive and based on science, data and proven approaches. Even so, there are naysayers, he said.
"I have challenged many people who have raised objections if they have taken the time to read the extensive report of the working committee. Most have not. Most have heard something about the bill and have basically said because we don’t have the ability to immediately send kids to court, there’s something wrong with the system," Snow said.
Law enforcement officials also perceive that the bill ties their hands to the point "they can’t go into the schools to make those arrests for those offenses," he said, "and that simply isn’t the case."
There is nothing in the bill "that prohibits referrals or arrests by law enforcement for assault, for drug possession, for drug paraphernalia," Snow said.
The inaugural meeting of the committee that will help implement the reforms is scheduled for Monday, he said. One of the most important tasks at hand is helping to educate stakeholders who will put the reforms into practice.
Outreach efforts are on the committee agenda, particularly working with law enforcement and education officials, and "doing what we can to make sure we provide the support we have promised," Snow said.