The Utah juvenile justice system has changed their lives. They hope it won’t affect your children either.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identifying solutions to Utah’s biggest problems through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Triumphant. That’s how Brock Smith feels when he walks in front of the microphone.

“As I speak, my anxiety dissipates and I find my natural flow,” Smith said. “It’s exciting, empowering and deeply satisfying.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brock Smith shared some ideas with members of Utah’s Save the Kids from Incarceration chapter on Tuesday, November 9, 2021 at Salt Lake Community College.

Whether lecturing on mental health or serving as a representative of imprisoned citizens fighting for civil rights in Louisiana courts, Smith openly acknowledges how far he has gone and knows the power of his interactions with the juvenile justice system in defending youth entangled in his network.

Smith is currently earning a social work degree. It wants to help children and families break cycles of imprisonment by linking them to state, non-profit and personal resources. He knows the devastating impact of the criminal justice system and has grown into the type of role model he and his family wish to have.

As a minor, Smith remembers vividly when a correctional officer escorted him down a long corridor to pick up a thin blue mattress before taking him to a cell where he would sleep for the next few weeks of his life.

“I kept saying, ‘Wow, that’s really happening,'” Smith recalled. “I’m 12 years old, it’s happening and I’m going to jail.”

In the summer of 2007, Smith and his siblings and mom shopped for school clothes.

“My mom felt a lot of pressure from society and as a single mother to make sure we had nice school clothes,” Smith said.

All three children chose their new clothes, left the store and never got to the car.

“We were arrested for stealing school clothes,” Smith said.

Smith took the blame. He believed that law enforcement would be easy with a 12-year-old child.

“I was arrested for stealing over a thousand dollars,” Smith said. “So it’s a big theft.”

As a teenager and young adult Smith, now 27, he was imprisoned in the system without much instructions on how to escape.

Years of hardship, dangerous situations and lost loved ones have forced Smith to change the trajectory of his life. His view provides useful information to parents who are worried about their children, to people who are desperately trying to disconnect themselves from crime, and to political influences who want to improve the juvenile justice system.

“It would be nice if my family received some kind of mental health treatment or community involvement, maybe some youth programs in this situation,” Smith said. “It was really just punishment, dismissal and fines.”

Prioritizing prevention

Launched by Utah Juvenile Justice Services, the youth services program seeks to provide just the kind of help Smith wants his family to have.

Originally launched in 2019, the program creates a tailor-made plan for families and children to prevent juvenile delinquency before it ends up in the hands of the juvenile justice system.

“JJS [Juvinile Justice Services] “Youth Services is an access to services without the wrong door that allows youth and families to get critical services and case management to the frontend without the involvement of the court,” said Pam Vickrey, CEO of Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys.

Services include (among other things) individual and family counseling, connection to community resources and skills building courses. After completing the program, 97% of young people were able to avoid child protection services and juvenile justice intervention in 2021.

Salt Lake County also has its own Youth Services network, which provides a variety of support options for youth, families, and the prevention of criminal interactions.

A quick guide for parents

Research shows that there are steps parents can take to prevent their child from embarking on a path that leads to juvenile delinquency:

  1. Interven in a timely manner: Take steps to address the child’s behavior as soon as possible. Seek support from community organizations such as those listed in this article.

  2. Learning / Doing: Youth engages in criminal and delinquent activities, looking for something in which they can be good and in which they can find acceptance. The alternative is to help your child develop the ability to do something that others value: the community, the elderly, their school, etc. Research shows that if a child feels they have learned skills that their parents and their parents value. community, they will rely on them instead of delinquent activities.

  3. Attachment / Togetherness: Along with learning and doing, young people need to build positive social ties. The most critical relationship is with the parents. Parents should be deeply involved in deciding which learning / doing would be most positive for their child and which groups would help them the most. Parents should be involved in this process as far as possible. This can be a problem where parents work long hours. Here, organizations like JJS can help parents design a tailor-made plan.

Enhancing experiences

One stormy Tuesday afternoon, Brock Smith was among nearly two dozen college students gathered in a circle at Salt Lake Community College to discuss ways to keep children out of the criminal justice system. Smith does not want children to experience the same trauma, for others the passion comes from witnessing their peers and loved ones trying to orient themselves in life outside the system.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Anthony Nocella (right) leads a discussion with members of Utah’s Save the Kids from Incarceration chapter on Tuesday, November 9, 2021 at Salt Lake Community College.

“We trust each other, we listen, we respect sincerity and we can be vulnerable to each other,” said Dr. Anthony Nocella, Professor of Criminal Justice at SLCC. “And that’s what we have to do as a community.” This is where it happens. “

In 2020, just over 6,000 young people from Utah came into contact with the juvenile justice system in various ways, such as arrest and transfer to court. And according to the Utah Juvenile Justice Commission, young people of color, especially blacks, make up a disproportionate percentage of children in the system. The UCJJ’s 2020 analysis shows that black youth are nine times more likely to be held in detention centers than white youth.

One of the reasons why experts agree on the over-representation of young people in juvenile justice is the lack of patterns that are similar to and related to children from different racial and cultural backgrounds.

Dr. Nocella leads the Utah branch of the local Save the Kids (or STK) organization before his imprisonment. As a fully volunteer organization, Nocella says it “focuses on brown and black communities and the decriminalization of brown and black communities” through cultural education, experience sharing and support.

STK Utah has 50 active volunteers, of whom about 20 are previously imprisoned. Since the chapter’s inception three years ago, they have launched a reintegration project in Utah, opened a community center for peace and justice, held poetry evenings for young people, and hope to eventually open a halfway house for adults leaving prison.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) MayKela shares some of her ideas with members of the Utah chapter Save the Kids from Incarceration on Tuesday, November 9, 2021 at Salt Lake Community College.

“I made the sisters take their lives because they didn’t survive the trauma we were going through ….” Contact with the juvenile justice system has changed their identity, “said MayKela Cox, who was imprisoned as a juvenile and a member of the STK. “So Save the Kids is not just about saving children, it’s also about changing the identities of people who have had experiences that look different than others.”

These types of tactics support transformative mentoring, which results in lower recidivism rates among young people connected to the system.

In New York, the Arches Transformative Mentoring program connected probation children with adults who shared a similar cultural background and were exposed to the juvenile justice system. Within 12 months, the recurrence rate among young people participating in the program fell by 69%.

Sharing personal experiences is an effective way to discourage children from joining or staying in the system, says Pam Vickrey, CEO of Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys.

“It simply came to our notice then [youth] they are able to share their experiences, the things that have benefited them and the impact of their situation on their family, “said Vickrey.

Utah launched its own Creditable Messanger program in August 2021, exclusively for young people in secure care, the most intensive form of judicial supervision, which involves staying in custody. However, it is too early to say whether the program will affect the recidivism rate of young people in Utah.

What next?

Much has changed since Brock Smith navigated the Utah juvenile justice system in 2007. Utah has introduced more alternatives to detention, approved juvenile justice reform, and the overall juvenile detention rate has fallen.

“But what we haven’t seen is a remedy for the over-representation of colored youth,” Vickrey said, “if anything, the Voices for Utah Children report showed that the children who benefit from the reform are white.”

Vickrey says they are working to identify the problem and where things are going wrong.

“Part of the interest of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee is to monitor and continue to monitor the implementation of the reform,” Vickrey said. “It’s something we’re still looking at: where do we get that over-representation and why are we trying so hard to fix it?”

In addition, Vickrey notes that learning about the journey of young people within the system is an important tool for changing juvenile justice policy.

“Experience is important for understanding how children hear and process what is happening to them in the courtroom,” Vickrey said. “They are helping us make recommendations to lawmakers about the changes that should be made to our juvenile justice system.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brook Smith, Anthony Nocella and Ken-Tay Lee, members of Utah’s Save the Kids from Incarceration chapter, at Salt Lake Community College, on Tuesday, November 9, 2021.

While juvenile justice experts continue to analyze racial differences and other constraints, Smith will continue to tell his story to provide support to children who operate in the same criminal system they sought to leave through clinical social work and community involvement.

“I was a child who could save,” Smith said. “I would like to play the same role that I could have used in some way and be an advocate of those who emerged from this traumatic situation.”

Solutions in practice

  • If you are worried that your child will be placed in the juvenile justice system, it will be right for the Utah’s Youth Services Program or Salt Lake County’s program.

  • There are an infinite number of ways to get involved in juvenile delinquency prevention in Utah. To join Save the Kids, visit their website.

  • If you have been imprisoned before and are looking for support, check out the Utah Reintegration Project.

  • Brock Smith is a co-founder of the non-profit Fourlifers Inc.-based renewal, which aims to provide services to vulnerable communities in the Salt Lake City area by sharing tools, resources and shared experience.


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