Guest opinion: Don’t criminalize normal teen behavior

Cordova Peterson Vickrey

The recent conversation surrounding West High Principal Ford White’s decision to not involve law enforcement when he found students intoxicated on school grounds has prompted many to consider the correct approach when adolescents make unwise decisions.

The specifics of West High’s policies and whether Mr. White did or did not follow them is a decision for district administration; however, the public’s reaction demonstrates the absolute need to stop viewing normal teen behavior through the lens of our criminal justice system. Courts and jails should not be our go-to for treatment, rehabilitation or intervention.

The State of Utah is in the midst of change in the field of juvenile justice. We are throwing out the relics of a system that wrongly believed the best way to deal with low-risk behavior was to incarcerate and institutionalize our youth. Many brave leaders, particularly in our legislature, have stepped forward and said enough is enough: we will not criminalize adolescent behavior, especially when overwhelming research, brain science and system wide outcomes show treating children as criminals only puts them on a path to worse behaviors and repeat system involvement throughout their lives. Indeed, Utah understands youths’ brains are still developing and, on an organic level, different from adults in decision-making.

Now is the time to double down on juvenile justice reform in Utah—the momentum and policy is on our side and heading in the right direction. Prior to major reform passed in 2017 (H.B. 239), over half of all youth in State’s custody were there for low level, status and non-violent offenses. This meant youth were removed from their home, school and community and placed in a group home or correctional setting for low-risk offenses like underage drinking. And while there are circumstances where placing a child in a locked facility may be appropriate to address public safety concerns, we should always question whether jails and prisons are the optimal place to address adolescent indiscretions. Especially when research shows when low-risk youth are placed in institutions, many learn worse behaviors and fall deeper into the system.

Since reform, we have appropriate, evidenced-based limits on when and why a child can be incarcerated. When possible, we address their behaviors with in-home services, substance use disorder treatment, and school-based behavioral health to keep families together and youth in their schools and communities. Youth are held accountable to correct poor behaviors through positive parent, community, teacher and peer supports. Communities are safer because youth are given the opportunity to correct their actions while learning the skills needed to become successful adults. We must continue to advocate for more community-based programs for youth and lead with compassionate, non-criminal solutions that help our children thrive and succeed in the least restrictive settings possible.

We encourage this powerful conversation to continue with the understanding of what will strengthen our youth and how we can all be positive influences in their lives—-especially when they exhibit challenging behaviors.

Kim Cordova is Executive Director, Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice
Brett Peterson is Utah Juvenile Justice Services Director
Pam Vickrey is the Executive Director of the Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys