This week, three state laws in Utah take effect that pertain to the state’s youth. Two of these laws make adjustments to the juvenile justice and child welfare systems; a third tackles children’s mental health.
House Bill 138 allows most people who are tried and sentenced as adults for serious offenses that they committed as juveniles to be housed in juvenile lockups until the age of 25.
Neuroscientific research has shown that the brain remains malleable until the mid-20s, and experts believe that means young people can continue to benefit from the more intensive rehabilitation services available in juvenile facilities.
The new law, sponsored by Rep. Marsha Judkins and Sen. Todd Weiler, both Republicans, allows them continued access to education and other services that they wouldn’t normally receive in an adult jail or prison. Those who present a safety or security risk in the judge’s opinion, based on their conduct or condition, would not be housed in a juvenile treatment-based setting.
The state already has the authority to house people up to age 25 for less serious offenses, according Juvenile Justice Services Division Director Brett Peterson.
Utah’s Sentencing Commission and its public defenders association backed SB 138, which was one of several bills Cox signed into law in a public ceremony in March. Another was Senate Bill 171, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher and Rep. Steve Eliason, both Republicans. That law requires the state’s Office of Education to work with the University of Utah’s Huntsman Mental Health Institute to develop a youth behavioral health curriculum that will be implemented in public and private schools statewide.
Thatcher said the need for such a curriculum is made plain by the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death among Utah residents ages 10 to 24.
“I think we all know that we need more resources,” he said in a committee hearing earlier this year. “Now, we’ve done an amazing job with building a crisis response system. … What we’ve done is we’ve placed a lot of ambulances at the bottom of the hill, and we’ve had to start there. But now what we’re trying to do is place a rail at the top.”
The contents of the curriculum must be available online for public scrutiny and will be updated every year after public comment.
By increasing students’ awareness of the importance of mental mental to overall well-being, and equipping them with the knowledge of how to get help, the hope is that it will reduce the tragedy of suicide and improve children’s overall health.
A third bill affecting youth, House Bill 153 by Rep. Calvin Musselman, requires those who perform child welfare interviews to ask if the child is comfortable. If the child isn’t comfortable, the bill directs interviewers to allow the child to have an adult there for support. The laws all take effect on May 4.