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As he stood inside a West Jordan juvenile courtroom in October, the 17-year-old boy realized he had a problem: He needed a lawyer.

He had already saved a few thousand dollars to pay for legal help to become emancipated. Now, he stood before a judge facing misdemeanor assault and criminal mischief charges.

"I need to get an attorney for this," he remembered thinking. "Or I'm not going to get emancipated at all. It's just going to get worse and worse and worse."

Then Judge Tupakk Renteria asked him: Would you like a court-appointed attorney?

The teen didn't realize at that time that not only would that attorney, Tasha Williams, help him resolve his criminal case, but she also would be instrumental in obtaining his legal independence. She would be an advocate, someone to give him a voice.

"It feels a lot better to have someone on [your] side who knows what they're doing," he said in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. "I think it's, like, the best thing to have an attorney — even if you are not a bad kid or anything. Just to have someone, just in case."

In August, his mother reported to police that her son had assaulted her — though he says he never hit her. A week later, police were called again after he broke a windshield during an argument, damage the teen said was accidental.

The Tribune does not generally identify youths who have been charged with crimes, unless they have been certified to stand trial as adults. The South Jordan boy's account was verified through a review of court papers.

In October, he resolved his case: He pleaded guilty to the criminal mischief charge and paid to replace the windshield. The assault charge was dismissed. There was no probation and no time in detention centers ordered. For the teen, it gave him the chance to move past his mistakes and focus on his efforts to be emancipated — things like maintaining a job and finding someone who would provide health insurance to a teenager — all while trying to finish high school.

Cases like this show why having court-appointed attorneys can make a difference for youths, according to Pamela Vickrey, executive director of the Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys.

"Much of it is to have an advocate that is just for the kid and also helping make sure the kids understand the proceedings," Vickrey said. "You are trying to make sure the kid understands what's happening and advocate zealously for them, but [also] trying to make sure the system is doing what it's set up to do and rehabilitate."

Providing lawyers for all juveniles charged criminally is just one of many changes proposed by the Utah Juvenile Justice Working Group, which is composed of juvenile judges, attorneys, legislators and others appointed by the governor to study how youths are treated in the state's justice system. The recommendations will be used as the foundation for a number of proposed statutory changes coming before the Legislature this session.

Research • No significant changes have been made to Utah's juvenile system in the past two decades, according to Ron Gordon, executive director of the Utah Commission of Criminal and Juvenile Justice. The state has a good system, Gordon said — one that others often emulate when making their own changes — but it isn't perfect.

"We knew we weren't trying to fix a broken system," said Gordon, who heads the working group. "We knew we weren't starting over from scratch. … We knew we had dedicated professional and evidenced-based models. [But] we also saw that we had fairly high recidivism rates."

Gordon said one of the group's findings was particularly surprising: Youths who were deemed "low-risk" often were progressing deeper into the juvenile-justice system. Comparing similarly situated low-risk youths, Gordon said the group found that if juveniles are placed out of the home — whether that be in a detention center, a group home or another placement — they fared worse and reoffended more often than those allowed to stay in their homes.

The group also found that most of the juveniles — 81 percent — who were in out-of-home placements were not accused of felony-level crimes.

Oftentimes, youths were taken out of their homes simply because the services they needed, such as substance use or mental health treatment, weren't available in their community, according to Gordon.

This was a "troubling" finding, said Susan Burke, director of Juvenile Justice Services (JJS).

"We should not be removing youths from their homes to get the help they need just because services don't exist in the community," Burke said. "We need to shift system resources to meet the needs of youth while keeping them home when it's safe to do so."

The working group also found that "nonsecure out-of-home placements" — facilities where youths reside, but the doors are not locked — can cost 17 times more than community supervision, but result in similar rates of reoffending.

A bed at a nonsecure facility can cost as much as $127,750 per year, according to the findings, and, on average, nearly $44,000 a year. Community supervision, in which the child remains in his or her own home, costs the state up to $7,500 per year.

In addition, Utah's juvenile court system gives judges enormous discretion: They can dole out any sort of punishment for any offense at any stage of the court process.

But just 38 percent of judges reported to the working group that defense lawyers are being appointed to youths in their courtrooms, and many told the working group that they were concerned that more juveniles were not being represented by an attorney.

"State law does not require that an attorney be present for misdemeanor or contempt [of court] charges, even if the initial charge is a felony," the report reads. "As a result, even youth who face the most serious consequence — removal from their home and placement in state custody — may not have legal representation and are not required by statute to receive it."

'We're going to improve outcomes for kids' • Many of the dozen proposed policy recommendations address a common goal: Keep kids in their homes instead of out-of-home placements, and reinvest the savings to provide services to those youths in the early intervention stages.

If out-of-home placement is warranted, Burke said, officials want to reduce that time to three to four months. JJS officials have already seen some success using a 90-day treatment program model, she said, but it has been "a tough sell" to their provider network and staffers because they are used to working with youths for longer periods of time.

"Our providers were having to learn what an intensive, effective treatment program should look like and how to deliver it so that it produces the results we demand," Burke said. "That's not easy to do when all you've done in the past is run a six- to 12-month program. We know shorter lengths of stay can produce better outcomes for youths. This approach will also free up dollars to reinvest back into more preventative services, thus reducing the number of youths who require this level of treatment."

Dawn Marie Rubio, juvenile court administrator, said the proposed changes also will affect how the courts operate. These structural changes — which will address everything from how cases are filed to how probation officers respond to youth behavior — will bring state-wide consistency, she said, but will require a "well-timed implementation plan."

Other changes proposed by the working group include risk assessments for juveniles both before and after cases are adjudicated, expanding services to youths throughout the state and offering training to those working throughout the juvenile-justice system to reduce racial disparity.

Mandatory appointment of legal counsel to all juveniles — regardless of whether they are indigent or what level of charges they face — is also proposed.

"It's important for the public to know that this is directed at both protecting and improving public safety and improving outcomes," Gordon said. "We're going to improve outcomes for kids and their families, and in the process of doing that, improve public safety as well."

Some of these changes will be funded by reinvesting money saved from reducing the number of youths in out-of-home placements. But Gordon said they will also seek some funding from the Legislature to help implement change right away.

This funding will be important, Rubio said, especially as one of the group's recommendations seeks to limit the amount of fines judges can impose on youth.

"In addition to the development of and access to the recommended statewide in-home and community-based services, adequate funding is critical for the juvenile court to undertake the shift from out-of-home placements to a more high-risk probation supervised youth," Rubio said. "Funding to operate the juvenile court without dependence upon the youth for fines and fees is also critical."

Funding for defense attorneys for youths is not in the existing budget, however. Gordon said he doesn't have an estimate of how much that might cost, but added it would need to be decided whether the state would pay for those attorneys or whether the counties would shoulder that burden.

"It will be a meaningful amount of money," Gordon said, "to implement meaningful change."

The future • After the 17-year-old South Jordan teen took care of his criminal charges, he wasn't finished with Judge Renteria: He still wanted emancipation. In November, after gathering all of the required papers proving why he should be legally independent, he went back to court to ask the judge to grant his request.

Williams, his attorney, came with him.

And when it was time to make his case, the teen said Williams spoke to the judge on his behalf.

"She said probably the best things ever to the judge," the teen said. "And that made it a lot better. Without Tasha there, it probably wouldn't have happened."

Renteria signed an order that day granting emancipation, two months before the teen's 18th birthday.

With that taken care of, the teen said he is focusing on his future. He will start a new job soon with better pay and benefits. And after getting behind in high school, he is working on catching up and will likely graduate early.

This fall, he will enroll at the University of Utah on a full-ride scholarship. He dreams of one day becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

With all that ahead of him, he said he won't be getting into any more trouble with the law.

"I'm done with that," he said. "I'm clean. I have straight A's. I'm just waiting to graduate high school and go to college."