Youth courts have existed in Utah for over two decades and have served countless youth across the state, acting as an alternative to the traditional juvenile court system. Youth who have committed minor crimes (such as truancy or vandalism) are referred by schools and/or police officers to these youth courts and receive dispositions that are restorative in nature. For example: a truant child may have to attend truancy courses or a child who has engaged in a fight must write an apology letter and attend anger management courses. What makes youth courts so unique, however, is that the people who decide what restorative justice measures take place are the offender’s peers – youth adjudicating other youth.
These youth courts see amazing results. The Salt Lake Peer Court, for example, sees over 300 cases a year, with only a small fraction (less than 10 percent) returning to the youth court system a second time. The primary reason for this is that the focus of youth courts is crime prevention, giving offenders the skills to express positive empowerment. These courts also benefit the traditional justice system as its courts have, in this case, 300 fewer cases a year to see; this, combined with the fact that youth courts are largely run by youth and adult volunteers (Salt Lake’s Peer Court has 120 youth volunteers, 40 adult volunteers, two part time staff and one full time administrator). The benefit to the public is easy to see.
But the 41 youth courts across the state have various different rules regarding how they interact with law enforcement agencies, school districts, and the courts. These interactions evolved organically over time, and are a result of each individual youth court reacting to its particular set of circumstances. Senator Jerry Stevenson (R – Layton, District 21) wants to change this with SB 119 – Youth Court Amendments.
The first and largest thing the bill would do is require youth courts to officially be certified by the Utah Youth Court Board (the governing body for youth courts in the state). Though this is not inherently a bad idea, one of the strengths of a youth court is that it is, in fact, organic in nature (as opposed to being formally created by legislative fiat) – it may be difficult for new youth courts to start if they must first be certified, and it is hard to be certified if they have not already started. Perhaps language allowing tentative status would be best, if only to allow these community based courts an opportunity to get off the ground.
The second major change the bill makes is that it requires youth who have been non-compliant with a youth court’s demands to be referred to a juvenile court system. This change disregards the fact that, sometimes, real progress can be made with a troubled youth even if they do not complete all aspects of their required sentence. If all cases must be referred to a juvenile court, it is quite possible that the adjudicating youth will opt to give a lighter (and therefore incomplete and non-helpful) sentence to a troubled youth, in order to avoid possibly sending a fellow peer to court. The system that Salt Lake Peer Court uses might be a better option, wherein a youth who has failed to complete his disposition is sent back to the source that referred them to the court in the first place. So, for example, if a school referred a youth for truancy, and that youth met some, but not all of their youth court requirements, the school may decide to allow the child back under certain circumstances – avoiding the formal juvenile justice system.
Youth courts are fantastic things, and the reforms Sen. Stevenson are proposing are promising, however some tweaking may need to take place if he wishes to improve the youth court system in our state. By taking responsibility and decision making out of the hands of these community formed, youth led, and volunteer run organizations, we must be careful about the unintended consequences. If this bill stopped at simply requiring certification and charging the Utah Youth Court Board with an easy incorporation process, we would be much more in favor of the bill. But by automatically placing youth who did not fully comply with a disposition into the criminal justice system, the bill misses the mark (and the point) for youth courts.
To contact Sen. Stevenson, Click Here or call 801-544-5172
Impact on Average Utahn:
High Impact 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 No Impact
Necessary 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 Unnecessary
Great Bill 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 . -1 . -2 . -3 . -4 . -5 Poor Bill