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Utah bill to halt prosecution of young children clears House

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SALT LAKE CITY — House lawmakers passed a bill Tuesday that would block the prosecution and incarceration of young children in an attempt to divert state spending to hone in on rehabilitation through mental health services and other methods.

HB262, which won unanimous favor in the House Judiciary Committee last week, passed the House 48-23.

Bill sponsor Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, said HB262 would eliminate the prosecution of children 11 and under, though this would not apply to those who commit serious offenses including murder, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated arson and aggravated kidnapping.

A child could also be prosecuted if they fail to participate in rehabilitation, Hall explained.

Rather than punishing elementary children for less serious crimes, the bill would give these individuals access to mental health treatment, parental counseling and other services.

“Evidence shows that the best way to support youth in their communities is with family involvement, which will lead to better outcomes and is less costly,” Hall said. “Keeping elementary age children out of detention and courts does not alter our commitment to and practice of accountability and community safety.”

Hall pointed out that youths have different minds than adults, and the system should take these differences into account.

Utah would not be the first state to do so. Twenty-two states already have a minimum age for prosecution in place, Hall said.

Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, questioned where the money for rehabilitation would come from.

Hall explained it wouldn’t cost any additional funds, rather, it would have a “positive fiscal note” because the state would be carrying out fewer prosecutions and incarcerations.

The original draft of the bill applied to children 12 and under, but Hall said he amended the legislation after prosecutors expressed concerns. When asked for prosecution numbers on the current 11 and under group, Hall said there were 77 instances in 2018.

Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, praised the bill for providing hope for young people through rehabilitation, the effectiveness of which he said is backed up by “evidence and data.”

“I think this is a very well-thought and well-crafted approach to dealing with serious crime with people that just don’t have the mental capacity to be held responsible in full measure the way an older person does,” Waldrip said.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, posed a hypothetical question of what would would happen to a 11-year-old boy who rapes his 6-year-old sister over the period of a year and how would the bill make a difference from current law.

Nelson said that it appears the list of serious crimes included in the bill would not cover such an instance.

“I don’t know that we need an age cutoff,” Nelson said, pointing out that many serious crimes are committed before age 11 and 12 — especially child sexual abuse.

“We should not just be concerned about the capacity to commit a crime, we should also care about the risk of an individual committing another crime,” he said. “The risk would justify holding an 11-year-old who rapes a younger sister or neighbor in detention as opposed to treatment.”

Hall said the line needed to be drawn somewhere.

“This list of crimes mirrors the crimes that are set forth and labeled serious enough so the individuals can be charged as an adult. We didn’t just come up with this list of crimes out of nowhere,” he explained, pointing out that prosecution would still be on the table if the individual failed to comply with rehabilitation.