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"Under our Constitution, the condition of being a [child] does not justify a kangaroo court."
It was with these words that the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the case known as In re Gault, ruling that juveniles in delinquency proceedings must be given many of the same due process rights as adults, including the right to counsel. May 15, 2017, marks the 50th anniversary of this landmark decision. However, many states, including Utah, still do not guarantee juveniles appointed counsel in every stage of the legal process. The Utah Legislature had a chance to fix this problem during the 2017 session by passing the original version of House Bill 239, which would have provided counsel to juveniles in every proceeding.
The bill's $9 million fiscal note proved daunting, but it is nothing compared to the cost of not respecting our kids' constitutional rights. In the end a less-extensive version of the bill, which does not keep the constitutional promise of counsel, was passed.
HB239's most substantial changes are the statewide uniform sentencing guidelines, which cap fines and community service hours. For minors under the age of 16 at the time of adjudication, the cap is $180 or 24 community service hours. For minors 16 years and older at the time of adjudication, the cap is $270 or 36 community service hours.
These caps do not include restitution. The sentencing guidelines are a large departure from the current system, where sentencing varies by county. They are an important step in the right direction, as they help to ensure that juveniles will not remain under court jurisdiction for extended periods of time for low-level offenses. More importantly, the guidelines recognize that despite their indigent status, juveniles must still be held accountable for their actions.
Despite the progress the bill makes with uniform sentencing guidelines, the amended bill still falls short of total reform. The current system requires appointed counsel in delinquency proceedings, yet because of the lack of funding, this requirement is not being met. Currently, appointed counsel is funded by the counties, and not by the state. Lack of funding results in children not being appointed counsel at every stage of the legal process. The original version of HB239 would have changed this by giving the counties additional funding to provide counsel at every type of proceeding.
As students at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, we came to law school to learn how to uphold the United States Constitution and act as advocates for those who cannot speak for themselves. During our time as students enrolled in the public policy practicum, we became aware that juveniles in our state are not appointed counsel in every delinquency proceeding. As future legal advocates, we are dismayed by this situation. Under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, competent legal representation is guaranteed to every citizen, including juveniles, in all legal proceedings. We can no longer ignore the fact that the current system in Utah does not meet this basic guarantee.
Implementing HB239 will start the process of protecting communities by holding juveniles accountable through reasonable discipline and fair consequences, leading to safe communities and successful children. However, until there is the automatic appointment of counsel for every child at every stage of the process, Utah will continue to fall short of this important goal.
This letter was written by students enrolled in the Public Policy Clinic at the S.J. Quinney College of Law: Dominica Dela Cruz, Jaime DuPratt, Donna Evans, Alexandria Keith and Brooke Parrish, under the supervision of Adjunct Professor Lincoln Nehring. The contents of the letter do not necessarily reflect the opinion, expertise or advice of the University of Utah, the S.J. Quinney College of Law or any of their employees.