This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identifying solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
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Triumphant. That’s how Brock Smith feels when he stands in front of the microphone.
“When I talk, my anxiety dissipates and I get back to my natural flow,” Smith said. “It’s exhilarating, empowering and deeply satisfying.”
Whether giving a presentation on mental health or serving as an attorney for incarcerated citizens fighting for civil rights in Louisiana courts, Smith openly embraces the journey he’s made and knows the power his interaction with the system has. Juvenile justice gives when he defends young people tangled in his web.
Currently, Smith is earning a degree in social work. He wants to help children and families break cycles of incarceration by connecting them to state-level, non-profit and personal resources. He knows the devastating impact of the criminal justice system, and he has become the type of role model and advocate he and his family wish he had.
As a preteen, Smith vividly remembers when a correctional officer escorted him down a long hallway to pick up a thin blue mattress before ushering him into the cell where he would sleep for the next few weeks of his life.
“I kept thinking ‘Wow, this is really happening,'” Smith recalled. “I’m 12, it happens and I’m going to jail.”
In the summer of 2005, Smith was shopping for school clothes with her siblings and mother.
“My mom felt a lot of pressure from society and being a single mom to make sure we had, you know, nice school clothes to wear,” Smith said.
The three kids picked out their new outfits, left the store, and never made it to their car.
“We were arrested for stealing school clothes,” Smith said.
Smith took the blame. He thought law enforcement would be easy with a 12-year-old.
“I was arrested for theft over a thousand dollars,” Smith said. “So that’s grand theft.”
As a teenager and young adult, Smith, now 27, was trapped in the system without much guidance on how to escape.
Years of hardship, dangerous situations and the loss of loved ones caused Smith to change the course of her life. Her perspective provides useful information for parents concerned about their children, people desperate to disconnect from a life of crime, and political influencers looking to improve the juvenile justice system.
“It would have been nice for my family to get some sort of mental health treatment or community involvement, maybe programs for young people in this situation,” Smith said. “It was really just punishment, release and fines.”
Priority to prevention
A youth services program launched by Utah Juvenile Justice Services seeks to provide exactly the kind of help Smith wishes his family received.
Originally launched in 2019, the program creates a tailored plan for families and children with the aim of preventing youth offending before they end up in the hands of the juvenile justice system.
“JJS [Juvinile Justice Services] Youth Services is a no-frills approach to services that allows young people and families to receive essential services and upstream case management without court involvement,” said Pam Vickrey, Executive Director of Lawyers for the Utah Juvenile Defender.
Services include (but are not limited to) individual and family counseling, links to community resources, and skills-building classes. After completing the program, 97% of young people were able to avoid child protective services and juvenile justice intervention in 2021.
Salt Lake County also has its own Youth Services Network that provides various support options for youth, families, and the prevention of criminal interactions.
A quick guide for parents
Research indicates that parents can take certain steps to prevent their child from going down a path that leads to juvenile delinquency:
Intervene early: As soon as possible, take steps to remedy the child’s behavior. Seek support from community organizations like those mentioned in this article.
Learning/Doing: Young people become attached to criminal and delinquent activities, looking for something they can be good at and find acceptable to do. The alternative is to help your child develop the ability to do something useful that is appreciated by others: the community, the elderly, their school, etc. Research shows that if a child feels they have learned skills that are valued by their parents and community, they will lean into those activities rather than delinquent ones.
Attach/Belong: In addition to learning and acting, young people need to develop positive social attachments. The most critical attachment is with parents. Parents need to be deeply involved in choosing what to learn/do would be most positive for their child, and what group services would help them the most. Whenever possible, parents should be involved in this process. This can be a challenge when parents work long hours. This is where organizations like JJS can help parents design a tailored plan.
Uplifting lived experiences
On a stormy Tuesday afternoon, Brock Smith was among nearly two dozen students gathered in a circle at Salt Lake Community College to discuss ways to keep children out of the criminal justice system. Smith doesn’t want kids to go through the same trauma, for others the passion comes from watching their peers and loved ones struggle to navigate life outside the system.
“We trust each other, we listen to each other, we value honesty and we can be vulnerable to each other,” said SLCC criminal justice professor Dr. Anthony Nocella. “And that’s what we have to do as a community. That happens here.
In 2020, just over 6,000 Utah youths came into contact with the juvenile justice system through various means, such as arrests and court referrals. And youth of color, especially black youth, make up a disproportionate percentage of children in the system, according to the Utah Juvenile Justice Commission. A 2020 analysis from the UCJJ shows that black youth are nine times more likely to be held in a detention center than white youth.
One of the reasons experts agree on the overrepresentation of youth of color in juvenile justice is the lack of role models who look like and connect with children from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.
Dr. Nocella leads the Utah chapter of the grassroots organization Save the Kids (or STK) from Incarceration. An “all-volunteer organization,” according to Nocella, “focuses on brown and black communities and decriminalizes brown and black communities,” through cultural education, experience sharing, and support.
“I’ve had sisters who committed suicide because they didn’t survive the trauma we were going through…. Contact with the juvenile justice system changed their identity,” said MayKela Cox, who was incarcerated as a teenager and a member of STK. “So Save the Kids is not just about literally saving children, but about changing the identities of people who have had different experiences than others.”
STK Utah has 50 active volunteers, about 20 of whom are formerly incarcerated. Since founding the chapter three years ago, they’ve launched the Utah Reintegration Project, opened a community center for peace and justice, hosted poetry nights for youth, and hope to eventually open a halfway house. for adults released from prison.
These types of tactics support transformative mentorship, which has resulted in lower rates of recidivism among youth involved in the system.
In New York, the Arches Transformative Mentoring program paired children on probation with adults who shared a similar cultural background and exposure to the juvenile justice system. In 12 months, recidivism dropped by 69% among young people participating in the program.
Sharing personal experiences is an effective way to deter children from getting involved or staying involved in the system, says Pam Vickrey, executive director of Utah Juvenile Defender Advocates.
And then ?
Much has changed since Brock Smith navigated Utah’s juvenile justice system in 2005. Utah has implemented more alternatives to detention, passed juvenile justice reform legislation, and the overall youth incarceration rate has dropped.
“But what we haven’t seen is a correction for the overrepresentation of young people of color,” Vickrey said, “if anything, the Voices for Utah Children report showed that children who benefit from reform are white.”
Vickrey says they are working to identify the problem and figure out where things are going wrong.
“Part of the purpose of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee is to review and continue to monitor the implementation of reform,” Vickrey said. “It’s something that continues to be examined: where is this overrepresentation coming from and why are we fighting so hard to address it?”
Additionally, Vickrey notes that learning about a young person’s journey through the system is an important tool for policy change in juvenile justice.
“Lived experience is important in understanding how children hear and process what happens to them in the courtroom,” Vickrey said. “They help us make recommendations to the Legislative Assembly on what changes should be made to our juvenile justice system.”
As juvenile justice experts continue to analyze racial disparities, Smith will continue to tell his story to provide support for children navigating the same criminal justice system he struggled to leave behind through clinical social work. and community engagement.
“I was a kid who could use savings,” Smith said. “I would like to play the same role that I could have used in some way and be an advocate for those who have come out of this traumatic situation.”