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John Florez: Courts should protect children's interests, too

In considering amendments to the Serious Youth Offender Law, state lawmakers are reaffirming Utah's commitment to have a justice system that protects both the interests of the children and society.
In considering amendments to the Serious Youth Offender Law, state lawmakers are reaffirming Utah's commitment to have a justice system that protects both the interests of the children and society.
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“The idea that a child is put in adult prison with adult criminals — in my mind — is unconscionable,” said state Sen. Aaron Osmond when he learned that a 16-year-old, charged as an adult, had been sentenced to Utah’s adult prison.

Osmond said he would sponsor a bill to change part of the current Utah Serious Youth Offender Law that allows judges to send minors to adult prison if they commit serious offenses. That law was passed when there was a national movement to be tough on crime.

Then two years ago, Rep. V. Lowry Snow and Sen. Lyle W. Hillyard recognized that past get-tough policies in dealing with youth crime were often counterproductive and passed HB105, which amended Utah’s Serious Youth Offender Law. HB105 reflects the original intent of the juvenile court system created in Chicago in 1899 — to protect the interest of children. Prior to that time, children who committed crimes were housed with adult criminals and mistreated, and many left prison leading a life of crime they learned while in prison.

The previous Serious Youth 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. 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.

Osmond, after seeing the 16-year-old sentenced to prison, said he would sponsor a bill to amend the Serious Youth Offender Law to prevent minors from being housed with adult offenders and allow judges to consider the youth offender’s social and psychological history in determining the disposition of the case.

Then last Tuesday, after working with district attorneys, he, along with Snow, filed SB167, which would further reaffirm the state’s intent to act in the interest of minors and more clearly define for prosecutors the use of direct filing of charges to send children under 18 to adult court. It also requires the adult prison system to house minors younger than 18 in juvenile justice facilities instead of the adult prison until they turn 18½ unless there is a safety issue for other juveniles. It also limits shackling of youths in court unless ordered by the judge.

Lawmakers should be commended for their insight and leadership in this matter. They have reaffirmed Utah’s commitment to have a justice system that protects the interests of children and society. One cannot overestimate the savings, and, more important, how it will assist youths and their families in improving their lives, promote integrity in the justice system, and keep the public safe.

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