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A broad overhaul of Utah's juvenile justice laws aimed at keeping offenders out of detention and in home-based counseling earned unanimous Senate approval on Wednesday.
Senators voted 24-0 for HB239, which was approved by the House last month. The bill requires an additional House vote, to confirm amendments made in the Senate, before moving to the governor's desk.
Senate sponsor Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said removing children from their homes, particularly for non-violent crimes, increases the odds of a student dropping out of school or engaging in repeat offenses.
Current practice also perpetuates racial disparities, Weiler said, and carries a larger cost to the state through its juvenile detention centers.
"I'm sure we'll be back next session with some tweaks to this," Weiler said. "But it is a data-driven approach and I think it will make a big difference."
Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, said his family's experience with juvenile justice followed a pattern of recidivism. His stepson struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, Buxton, which led to multiple stints in detention programs and ultimately jail time as an adult.
He said children in detention are put in contact with other offenders, which can accelerate their travel down the wrong path.
"Each time he came out of jail he knew more," Buxton said, "until the point that he was actually distributing [drugs]."
But Sen. Lyle Hillyard questioned whether home-based and counseling programs would have consistent results, as a child's home environment contributes to their involvement in risky behavior and crime.
"Are we really going to make juveniles better by not being harsh with them and sending them home?" he said.
Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, said it is traumatizing to familes when youth are criminalized.
"I definitely believe we are doing more harm than good," he said.