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Minority youth and the Juvenile Justice System

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Ben Moa photoBen Moa (former juvenile offender): I'm not really scared of anything and I've been through a lot. So, I guess I'm just out there playing with no fear. And just catching balls in the middle of people running full speed at me and trying to knock me out.

Narrator: Ben Moa's fearlessness helped make him a star tight end for the Univerisity of Utah during the 2003 football season. But he earned his courage the hard way. From the time he was twelve years old he was getting into trouble with the law. He spent almost 3 years in a locked Youth Corrections facility for gang related crime.

Ben Moa: I think it was the way it made me feel. Like I felt I was a part of something. I was stronger then myself, it was bigger then me. Cause we did everything together, we fought together. It was kind of like soldiers. You can relate to something like soldiers.

Narrator: Although each youth's experience is unique, Moa is among the disproportionate number of minority youth in Utah's and the nation's Juvenile Justice System at any given time.

Dan Maldonado photoDan Maldonado (Deputy Director, Utah Division of Youth Corrections): In Utah roughly 15 percent of the at risk population is minority and approximately double that figure will have some sort of contact with the juvenile justice system. We're not sure why there are more minority youth in the justice system, but this is a problem also that is mirrored across the country. And in virtually every state in this nation there are minority overrepresentation problems.

Narrator: A plethora of reasons are being examined as the possible cause for the over-representation of minority kids in the system: poverty, lack of education, lack of community resources, racial profiling, cultural insensitivity, and more, but the complex puzzle remains.

Yvette Donosso Diaz photoYvette Donosso Diaz (President, Utah State Minority Bar Association): The problem is that there aren't many people of color working in the system who are both bilingual and bicultural and who not only can empathize with the youth situation, but understand where they are coming from. Many of us in communities of color feel like they get a little harsher treatment when they go through the system, and if you do that, if there's not an equal playing field, then that's definitely going to skew the numbers.

Judge Andrew Valdez photoJudge Andrew Valdez (Utah State Juvenile Court Judge): You can't line up five white kids and say these five white kids committed vehicle burglaries and these five brown kids or brown-purple kids committed vehicle burglaries and the brown-purple kids received a different disposition. Well, there's reasons for that sometimes besides the crime, and that's what the focus has to be is that the juvenile court is not really a crimes and punishment process. Usually we have to deal with a multitude of issues and problems that exceed the crime. So it's very difficult to say, Well, this is a vehicle burglary and this was the only factor that the judge considered because the judge has to consider a lot of factors.

Ben Moa: It's easier to get in trouble if you're a minority because you're already in the projects or the ghetto so people are already doing it.

Narrator: It took a lot for Ben Moa to finally change his life. He got into college and got married. Then he almost lost his life when he got shot trying to break up a gang related fight.

Ben Moa: I think that was like the check, reality check, of my life right there. Was like, Dang, I got hit, cause we used to get shot at, but never got, well I got grazed a couple times, but never got hit. And a we just basic, I just basically had a lot of time in the hospital to make my decisions and see what I wanted to do with life.

Narrator: In 1996 the "Utah Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Fairness" was created to "examine and address real and perceived bias toward racial and ethnic minorities within Utah's criminal justice system." Recommendations include system-wide changes in hiring, training, and community outreach. But are the changes making an impact?

Dan Maldonado: We have made, I think, some remarkable strides in that area. There was a time, just a few short years ago, when 50 percent of the population in our long-term lock-ups were minority. That number has dropped down to 30 percent.

Ben Moa photoBen Moa: You're not going to change unless you want to change. And I didn't want to change at first when I got out, but when my family came along . . . When I married my wife and had my son I really wanted to change, so I had to make a decision if I was going to run with my family or if I was gonna run with my gang.

Narrator: Ben Moa plans to continue being fearless on the football field. He also hopes to work with troubled youth and tell them what he's been through.

Ben Moa: They gotta pave their own way. They're gonna have to break through the cycle so your kids don't go in the same situation.

Produced by Colleen Casto, KUED

View the video (Windows Media format)

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