Congress may prompt juvenile justice reforms in Utah

Utah would receive incentives for locking up fewer juveniles under a newly updated Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act introduced in Congress. Photo courtesy of Utah State Court System.

SALT LAKE CITY – Congress is set to consider updating a decades-old law that guides Utah and all states on the custody and care of juveniles in the criminal justice system.

Reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was introduced late last week, and one big change would be providing incentives to states to lock up fewer children.

Investigative journalist Nell Bernstein said locking kids up is expensive for states and can cause harm that follows kids for the rest of their lives.

“The ones that we incarcerate are twice as likely, when you control for everything under the sun including the delinquent act, to end up as adult prisoners,” she said.

Bernstein’s research into juvenile justice has focused on lawsuits related to guards abusing kids in custody. She also claimed that guards are rarely punished, and that kids are afraid to speak up or don’t have safe ways to file grievances.

Bernstein advocates for closing most juvenile-detention facilities, saying treating the underlying issues closer to kids’ homes has been proved to be more effective. She also believes that the “acting out,” “mouthing off,” skipping school or shoplifting that often leads to kids being put behind bars is a developmental phase.

“We have to unlock ourselves from this concept that the first-line response when a young person does something we don’t want them to do is to remove them from home and community and place them in a locked institution,” she said.

The legislation is sponsored by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

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