SALT LAKE CITY — Brett Peterson, director of Utah’s Division of Juvenile Justice Services, listed off several notes on an elementary school-aged child who had been brought into a detention center.
Low average IQ. Drug exposed in utero. Conduct disorder. ADHD. Learning disabilities. Significant health issues.
“It was heartbreaking,” Peterson told lawmakers on a House committee last week. “But what was more heartbreaking was when I shared that with my staff, they said, ‘Yeah. That’s how every one of these children are.’ That’s the kind of complex life and background they are bringing when they come, and we can find a better path to serve them.”
Peterson said those children who land in court come “without fail” with a history of trauma, mental health issues or disabilities.
Compared to 32 other states that have a minimum age for children who are prosecuted and sent to juvenile court, Utah has none. But Peterson said an age cutoff is “critical and needed” in the state to prevent putting children in the criminal justice system, rather than giving them treatment so they can turn their lives around early.
“The justice system is not appropriate for elementary-aged children,” he said. “We are talking about sixth graders. We are talking about fifth graders. We are talking about fourth graders.”
Last year, Utah processed about 90 cases statewide against elementary-aged children, Peterson said, including a child as young as 5 years old. Of those, about 60 children were booked into a detention center.
A bill being sponsored by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, seeking to stop the prosecution and incarceration of young children cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday — but only after Hall agreed to lower the minimum age from 12 to 11, at the request of prosecutors.
HB262, after initially being held by lawmakers while Hall negotiated changes, won unanimous endorsement from the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. It now goes to the full House for consideration.
The bill seeks to stop spending state resources on the prosecution of young children, but rather focus resources on mental health treatment, parental counseling and other services. While it does block prosecution of children 11 years old and younger, it does include several exceptions, as it would not apply to serious offenses including aggravated assault, murder, attempted murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated arson and more.
Additionally, if a child fails to complete treatment, the bill would allow prosecutors to seek charges against the child.
Hall said the bill could actually save the state money by preventing expensive prosecutions and diverting children to programs that have services available.
Peterson on Wednesday called the bill “carefully crafted with broad support” from juvenile justice workers and prosecutors alike. No one opposed the bill during Wednesday’s committee hearing.
“This ensures we can assertively and aggressively provide treatment that we need for a child based on their individual needs without the detriments of the prosecution and incarceration,” Peterson said.
Lisa St. Louis, program director at the Salt Lake Valley Juvenile Detention center, last week told of how an 11-year-old recently came to the detention center because he had been charged with a crime after bringing his mom’s Leatherman knife to class.
Louis said the boy had been bullied because he was a tap dancer and had no history of behavioral issues. His parents, Louis said, were “taken aback” by the process.
Louis also told of how she’s watched the negative impact detention centers can have on elementary-aged children, who actually leave the facility with new learned bad behaviors after “adapting” to the older kids in the center by “mimicking” their behavior. She said seeing the younger kids compared to the teens puts the issue into “perspective.”
“Another young man came in on his 10th birthday, and he was so nervous in intake, he swallowed one of his toys, and he had to be taken to the E.R.,” Louis said. “Again, perspective.”