Trio of Utah bills aims to educate, adjust sentencing length for juvenile offenders

Lawmakers conduct business on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives in Salt Lake City, Jan. 27, 2020 | File photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — This year’s legislative slate includes three bills aimed at juvenile justice reform, including sentencing and penalty amendments, as well as providing services to incarcerated youth.

House Bill 279: Higher Education for Incarcerated Youth

Sponsored by Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, HB-279 aims to bring higher education to incarcerated youth. If passed, the bill will ensure that incarcerated youth will have access to courses provided by Dixie State University.

That means that young people who are incarcerated will have access to courses, as well as instructors, so that they may use their time productively. If they choose, they may work toward a number of degree or technical certificates.

Snow said that Utah needs to do more to ensure that, when released, formerly incarcerated youth have the skills they need to earn a living and contribute to their communities.

Rep. V. Lowry Snow, date and location unknown | Source unknown for St. George News

“Education is the antidote to recidivism,” Snow said. “We’ve got to invest in educational outreach. This program will provide course materials to work on, so they can prepare for their release and get jobs for themselves.”

Snow said that too often the adult population receives attention, while youth are forgotten.

“The way we handle young people determines how they develop,” Snow said. “Data shows that the way we deal with them in schools has an impact on them as adults. When mistreated, they may develop social problems. I’m trying to get to the headwater.”

Studies show that young people who are incarcerated are many times more likely to commit new crimes once released. Because these are youth who have committed serious crimes, they may arguably require more attention and services than lower level offenders.

HB-279 has been publicly distributed but is awaiting fiscal input before moving on to the next stage.

House Bill 67: Juvenile Sentencing Amendments

Sponsored by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, HB-67 is an attempt to amend a juvenile sentencing law. As it stands, when a juvenile who was sentenced before he was 18 was transferred to an adult facility, an adult court judge could reduce his sentence.

Rep. Craig Hall, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah House of Representatives, St. George News

This posed potential problems, as juveniles who didn’t belong in an adult facility could be sent there to finish out their sentences.

Yet Jenny Brotherson, mother of deceased West Valley Police officer Cody Brotherson, said there are times when they should serve out their sentences.

In November 2016, West Valley Police officer Cody Brotherson was laying down spikes on the road to stop a pair of teenage brothers in a stolen car as they fled from law enforcement. The driver and his brother, Christopher and Lawrence Boggs, struck and killed Brotherson.

The Boggs brothers were charged with first-degree felony murder in juvenile court, as well as vehicle theft, failing to stop for law enforcement and other gang-related crimes. Each boy took a plea deal, pleading guilty to lesser crimes to resolve their cases.

“The juvenile court judge handed down the maximum sentence to these teens,” Hall told the committee. “They could be held until they were 21; however, in 2020, the brothers were involved in two separate assaults. They were taken out of the juvenile facility and placed in an adult facility.”

Despite the fact that they had killed a police officer, and had been involved in two assaults, an adult court judge released them before they were 21.

It didn’t take long for them to wind up in trouble again. They were arrested just months after their respective releases for driving a stolen vehicle; one of them had a gunshot wound.

“Ironically, had the juveniles not committed any offenses in custody, they would have remained in juvenile until they were 21,” Hall said. “But because they committed additional offenses while in juvenile, these offenses ironically led to shorter sentences. This bill ensures that a youth will be held accountable for their juvenile disposition. And that accountability is not terminated because they commit an additional offense in the juvenile detention system.”

Snow spoke in favor of HB-67.

“One of the things we do up here is to try and find issues related to defects in laws,” Snow said. “We address and try to fix them.”

The bill has passed through the House 73-0-2, and has had its first reading by the Senate Rules Committee.

Senate Bill 50: Juvenile Offender Penalty Amendments

SB-50 is sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, and Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City.

“We had a woman who was charged as an adult for a crime she had committed when she was 14 years old,” Thatcher said. “She spent 10 years in a state prison, and was registered as a sex offender … because of something she did as a child.”

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Senate, St. George News

Thatcher said that one of his strengths as someone who lacks a law degree is that he’s often asking: How is an average person supposed to know that? How is one supposed to navigate that?

“I can’t explain why the court felt like they didn’t have the jurisdiction or the authority to use discretion,” Thatcher said to the committee. “After bringing together the smartest people we could find on the subject, we have Senate Bill 50.”

Thatcher said that SB-50 is extremely complicated in its language, but its premise is simple.

“The premise is this: If you commit a crime, you should face the appropriate level of punishment based on the age that you were at the time the crime was committed,” Thatcher said. “If you are a child when you do something wrong, you face a certain level of punishment. If you are an adult, you face a different level of punishment. In Utah, we call that justice.”

There is a loophole, Thatcher added. If the reporting is delayed, and if the complaint is not made until after the offender is an adult, as in the case of the aforementioned woman, that person would face a much more severe penalty. That’s what the amendment is trying to change.

“Let’s be clear, we’re not changing what juvenile punishments should be,” Thatcher said. “We’re not getting into changing what juvenile punishments are, or should be. This is 100% about trying to ensure that a person faces the appropriate level of punishment, based on the age of the offender at the time of the offense.”

SB-50 unanimously passed its second and third Senate readings and has had its first reading in the House.

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2021 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!