OGDEN, Utah (AP) — A 17-year-old boy walked into an Ogden courtroom on a sunny June day, shackled and wearing a Weber County Jail uniform.
Facing adult charges and prison time, Mario Segura asked the judge for another chance.
“Once you’re in the adult system there’s no way of getting out,” the 17-year-old Segura said.
His attorney, Shawn Condie, asked the judge for a lesser sentence for Segura, adding the teen had job prospects and he would be “eaten alive” in an adult prison. Condie acknowledged what Segura had done could warrant prison, but he hoped the court would give the teen another chance.
Deputy Weber County Attorney Rachel Snow rebuffed Condie’s statements, arguing that the court should follow the sentence recommended by Adult Probation and Parole (AP&P) and send the teen to prison.
“He makes choices that are violent,” Snow said.
Before Judge Joseph Bean issued his decision, he talked about the book he was currently reading — “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, which chronicles the Austrian psychologist’s experience living through a World War II concentration camp.
Bean said that the book illustrated how some prisoners were good, moral people and others were not. However, Bean said, in the end it comes down to the choices one makes, regardless of the condition one is in.
“It’s all about your choices, not the people you’re around,” Bean said.
The judge sided with the prosecutor and AP&P, imposing a term of zero to five years in a state prison on charges of assault by a prisoner and possession of a controlled substance in a correctional facility, both third-degree felonies.
Segura was one of four Utah juveniles sent to a state prison in 2019. All four of those juveniles were prosecuted in Weber County.
As of Jan. 11, three of those youths currently reside at the Utah State Prison in Draper. The fourth is back in a juvenile facility.
The charges that landed these juveniles in prison are all either second- or third-degree-felonies.
Though each juvenile was charged with numerous criminal offenses and went through a certification process before reaching the adult system, some in the juvenile justice system have raised concerns about the decisions to send kids to prison.
How kids can get to prison
All four juveniles that were incarcerated in a state prison at some point in 2019 — Mario Segura, Lawrence Boggs, Justin Frady and Elisha Mora — were each transferred to adult court using Utah Code 78A-6-703, called the Certification Statute, which allows children over the age of 14 to be tried as adults if the prosecuting agency convinces a juvenile court judge that “it would be contrary to the best interests of the minor or of the public for the juvenile court to retain jurisdiction,” according to the law.
A county attorney’s office is the prosecuting agency in the juvenile court system, just like in district courts. If charged, the youth is entitled to a public defender as well.
Before a juvenile can be bound over to an adult court, they must go through a certification hearing, which is essentially a preliminary hearing where the prosecuting agency lays out the full case before a juvenile court judge. The judge then decides if the case should be transferred to the adult court. The hearing can last several days and often features a number of witnesses called to testify.
In Utah, there are ways beyond certification in which juveniles accused of crimes can be transferred to the adult system.
If someone age 16 or older is charged with murder or aggravated murder, their case is directly filed in a district court rather than juvenile court. Anyone who has previously been sentenced to a long-term, secure juvenile facility and is then charged with another felony can also be charged as an adult.
A juvenile can be transferred to the adult system through the Serious Youth Offender statute, which indicates that anyone age 16 or 17 accused of one of 10 aggravated offenses can be prosecuted in an adult court. These charges include aggravated arson, aggravated assault, aggravated robbery and others. Under the same statute, if a minor is charged with a crime that involves a dangerous weapon for the second or more time, prosecutors have the ability to charge the juvenile as an adult.
State law also says that if the Division of Juvenile Justice Services finds that, “housing the minor in a division facility presents an unreasonable risk to others or that it is not in the best interest of the minor, it shall transfer the physical custody of the minor to the Department of Corrections.”
Segura and Boggs
Segura was certified as an adult when he was only 15, after a string of four armed robberies of convenience stores in Salt Lake County over the span of two days in July 2017. Segura was arrested after the fourth robbery when a clerk and a bystander intervened and held him down until police arrived. Officers later found a loaded handgun that Segura used during the robbery.
In November 2017, he went through a certification hearing in 3rd District Juvenile Court, where a judge ultimately bound him over to the district court. Within weeks, Segura pleaded guilty to one count of robbery, a second-degree felony.
Court documents do not show the details regarding Segura’s plea agreement or sentence, but the teen was ordered to long-term lockup at Mill Creek Youth Center, a secure juvenile facility in Ogden, according to Weber County Attorney Chris Allred.
Mill Creek is one of five long-term secure facilities for juveniles in Utah, and the other four facilities are located in Davis, Salt Lake, Utah and Iron counties.
Once at Mill Creek, Segura and another teen, Lawrence Boggs, were charged after the two and another male in the facility reportedly coordinated an assault on another juvenile at the facility. Segura and Boggs were each charged with single counts of assault of a prisoner in early 2019 after the incident reportedly took place in November 2018.
Segura was allowed to stay at Mill Creek while the assault case was pending, but when he and another juvenile at Mill Creek were found with methamphetamine, prosecutors filed a motion to transfer Segura to the Weber County Jail.
After the fight, Boggs was charged as an adult for the first time according to court records, facing one count of assault by a prisoner, a second-degree felony. However, this was far from Bogg’s first serious brush with the law.
Court records show Boggs had over 40 petitions filed against him in juvenile court, but none more serious than a manslaughter conviction in 2016.
Boggs was 14 when he and three other juveniles were in a stolen car that struck and killed Officer Cody Brotherson, a West Valley City police officer. Brotherson was trying to deploy a spike strip to stop the car when it swerved around the spikes and hit Brotherson, killing him. Court documents do not specify who was driving the car when it hit Brotherson.
Boggs pleaded guilty to the manslaughter charge, which was one of a handful of charges that landed him at Mill Creek.
Following the fight involving Boggs and Segura, Boggs was moved to the Weber County Jail in early 2019. Boggs later pleaded guilty to the second-degree felony assault charge, and on May 17, he was sentenced to prison for a term of one to 15 years.
In a letter submitted to the court, Mill Creek administrators wrote that Boggs “poses a definite potential risk to other residents and staff if he were to be committed back to the Division of Juvenile Justice Services.” However, the administrators added that Boggs was a “smart young man and when he wasn’t involved with gang incidents he was participating in groups and activities with the highest level residents.”
When Boggs was sent to prison, Segura was still in the Weber County Jail and would end up facing three separate cases in 2019.
In February, Segura was charged as an adult for possessing meth at Mill Creek, a third-degree felony. A month later, Segura pleaded guilty to the drug charge and the Mill Creek assault charge, and on April 11, a judge suspended his prison term in lieu of probation. He was sentenced to three years of probation and a year in an adult jail.
A little over two weeks later, Segura and another person were accused of assaulting another person in the Weber County Jail. He was charged a few days later with assault by a prisoner, a third-degree felony, in connection with the Weber jail assault.
He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve a term of zero to five years in prison. His probation on the Mill Creek assault and drug charges was terminated unsuccessfully, and the judge imposed the previously suspended prison sentence. The judge also ordered that Segura’s sentences for the three charges would run concurrently.
As of Jan. 5, both Boggs and Segura were still in the custody of the Utah State Prison. Boggs was recently granted parole and will be released in October 2020. Segura does not have a parole date set, according to online records from the Department of Corrections.
Mora and Frady
Boggs and Segura weren’t the only juveniles charged as adults after assaults at Mill Creek.
In January, three separate cases were filed against Justin Frady, who was 16 at the time. While charging documents give little details surrounding the case nor do they indicate why Frady was in the care of a juvenile center, they do outline three separate assaults at Mill Creek involving Frady over a span of several weeks in 2018.
The first assault took place on Oct. 3, 2018, when Frady punched another juvenile at Mill Creek before a staff member intervened. Frady then reportedly punched the staff member “multiple times,” according to a probable cause statement. Weeks later, Frady got upset with a staff member and hit the staffer with his shoe, and the incident would become his second adult criminal charge.
In the final assault charge, prosecutors alleged that Frady tried to fight another juvenile before a staff member intervened, prompting Frady to push the staffer away. The staffer suffered a concussion after hitting their head on a table, according to court documents. While being escorted out, Frady reportedly hit another staffer with his shoe.
Frady’s counsel chose to waive the certification hearing in front of a juvenile judge, according to Allred, and the case was bound over to the district court. He ultimately pleaded guilty to four counts of assault by a prisoner, all third-degree felonies.
Based on his “violent criminal history” and the fact that the charges were stemming from his time in a secure juvenile facility, AP&P recommended Frady be sent to prison. According to Allred, a presentence report prepared by AP&P stated: “Although Justin is only 16 years old and these are his first offenses as an adult, the safety of the community far outweighs any other consideration.”
On April 24, an Ogden judge adhered to AP&P’s recommendation, and Frady was sentenced to a term of zero to five years in a Utah state prison. The judge orderd that the three cases would run concurrently. By the time charges were filed in district court, Frady was no longer at Mill Creek and in the custody of the Weber County Jail, according to court records.
As of Jan. 5, Frady was in the custody of the Utah State Prison and did not have a parole date set.
The fourth and final juvenile to be incarcerated at a state prison in 2019 was 17-year-old Elisha Mora, who was in prison custody for a little less than a month.
Mora was first certified as an adult in August 2018 after he was accused of brandishing a firearm at a bystander the previous May. Prosecutors alleged in the motion to certify Mora that the vehicle he was in, which was stolen, was later pursued by police in a chase where speeds exceeded 100 mph.
The motion also indicates a defense attorney said police did not find a firearm when they arrested Mora. The judge considered the factual discrepancies in the case, but still decided to bind Mora over to the district court on multiple charges. Mora ended up pleading guilty to single counts of theft by receiving stolen property, a second-degree felony, and failure to stop at the command of law enforcement, a third-degree felony. Two other felonies and two misdemeanors were dropped in exchange for his plea.
On Jan. 31, 2019, Mora saw his potential prison term suspended, and instead was sentenced to three years of probation. At the time, he was in the custody of the Weber Valley Detention Center, an Ogden facility used for short-term confinement as opposed to Mill Creek, a longer-term confinement facility. Short-term facilities can be found in each of Utah’s judicial districts.
However while Mora was on probation, prosecutors said he was one of four juveniles who reportedly robbed two other juveniles of their phones, shoes and backpacks on May 7 in Ogden. Charging documents say that one of the juveniles identified Mora as someone who was holding a gun to his chest during the robbery. Police later arrested Mora on May 11 and reportedly found a stolen handgun in the vehicle that matched the description of a gun used during the robbery. Mora was booked directly into the Weber County Jail.
He later pleaded guilty to single counts of robbery and possession of a firearm by a restricted person, both second-degree felonies.
Before he was sentenced, Mora’s attorney, Jason Widdison, filed a motion in opposition to AP&P’s recommendation to send Mora to prison. Widdison argued that Mora’s age should play a significant part in the outcome of the sentencing. He cited a 2012 study that strongly suggested, “important changes in brain anatomy and activity take place far longer into development than had been previously thought.”
The study, written by Temple University professor Dr. Laurence Steinberg, also indicated “studies of adolescent brain anatomy clearly indicate that regions of the brain that regulate such things as foresight, impulse control, and resistance to peer pressure are still developing at age 17.”
Ultimately on Oct. 21, a district judge adhered to the sentence recommended by AP&P, and he was ordered to be in custody of the Department of Corrections. Allred said this happened because Mora was ordered to prison before the Division of Juvenile Justice Services sent the court their input in the case.
Records show that on Oct. 25, the court received a letter from DJJS indicating they did not believe Mora posed a threat to others if committed to a juvenile facility. The letter added that “his best interest may be served if housed in a DJJS secure facility.”
The same day the court received the JJS letter, Mora arrived at the Utah State Prison, according to Department of Corrections spokesperson Kaitlin Felsted. Mora was in their custody until Nov. 20, when he was transferred back to a juvenile facility.
Though the local judiciary has deemed the actions of these four juveniles warranted stays in adult facilities, research suggests more harm than good will come from locking them up in adult facilities. The incarceration of these juveniles has also caused concern with some who work in the Utah juvenile court system.
Pam Vickrey — executive director for Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, an organization that provides defense counsel for kids charged in the Salt Lake County juvenile system — called the actions of the Weber County judicial system “very disturbing.”
“You should never send a young person to prison,” Vickrey said.
She went on to say that the juvenile court system was created for a reason, and that the brains of 17-year-olds are still very amenable to change and the influence of others. Vickrey said that the best place for kids accused of crimes is in youth facilities, no matter the alleged crime.
“You hear a lot of people say ‘that’s how we deal with serious or violent offenses,’ but young people should be handled in a developmentally appropriate way,” Vickrey said.
When juveniles are held at adult facilities, special measures are taken to ensure their safety.
When a juvenile arrives at a Utah prison, they go through a screening process, according to Felsted. The youth is held in a restrictive housing unit away from adult offenders until they turn 18. Felsted added in an email that, “options for programming, out of cell time, visits and other activities would likely be limited at first, but may increase depending upon behavior and availability within restrictive housing.”
Juveniles in adult facilities are not only security risks, but studies show this can also cause significant problems for the long-term welfare of the youth.
A 2009 study from the University of Texas at Austin School of Law found that children are 36 times more likely to die by suicide in an adult jail than in a juvenile facility. The same study also found that juveniles are five times more likely to be victims of sexual assault compared to those kept in juvenile facilities.
Even when those juveniles are eventually released, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that young people transferred to adult facilities were more likely to reoffend. The study found that young people released from adult prisons had 34% more felony arrests than young people released from juvenile facilities.
The same CDC study found the following: “the review provides sufficient evidence that the transfer of youth to the adult criminal justice system typically results in greater subsequent crime, including violent crime, among transferred youth; therefore, transferring juveniles to the adult system is counterproductive as a strategy for preventing or reducing violence.”
Young people with adult felony convictions can face a steeper path to success once they’re released. Felony convictions make it impossible for these juveniles to obtain certain types of employment, receive educational loans or, in some states, vote. In Utah, those convicted of felonies can vote once they are released from prison.
In terms of fiscal responsibility, keeping youth in juvenile centers is again the smarter move. The University of Texas study suggests that keeping kids in juvenile courts could result in “a $3 savings benefit for the correctional and judicial systems for every $1 spent.”
Vickrey said juveniles in prison have a more difficult time receiving the treatment they need, whether that’s for mental health services, addiction treatment or any other type of service or therapy.
“Young people are most susceptible to rehabilitation,” Vickrey said. “It’s more dangerous (for juveniles to be in prison) because we’re not dealing with their behavior.”
Brett Peterson, director of DJJS, said that every juvenile in their care is evaluated upon arrival and quickly receives care that is specific to their needs. By targeting and addressing a young person’s specific needs, the chances for reoffending drop.
“One thing that’s great about Utah is that we’re on the cutting edge in terms of care,” Peterson said. “Evidence-based treatment ensures that everyone in our care receives an appropriate amount of treatment.”
The approach of handling each juvenile individually and with personalized programs to target their personal needs is an approach that other states are trying to emulate, Peterson said.
After House Bill 239 was passed in 2017 that limited the ability to lock up kids accused of lower-level charges, DJJS saw a drop in the number of incarcerated youth. Peterson said that this reduction of incarcerated juveniles allowed DJJS to focus their resources on preventative measures and in-home placement instead of out-of-home placement in secure facilities.
He said adolescent brains are not fully developed by the time they reach 18, and the concepts of risk taking and consequences can not be fully realized in youth brains.
“From national research, we know they aren’t thinking the same as adults,” Peterson said.
He said that developmentally appropriate sentences are essential to the success of a young person in their care. Peterson added that young people have a better ability to leave their juvenile records in the past without carrying the burden of an adult record.
“We have much better opportunities (for young people) in a juvenile facility,” Peterson said.
Vickrey said it’s a misrepresentation that the juvenile court holds the hands of kids accused of crimes, but in fact the juvenile court system uses fact-based approaches aimed at lowering the chances of kids becoming criminal offenders in the adult system.
She said transferring kids to district courts can be risky, as it’s difficult to tell what kind of person a teen will be once their brain is fully developed.
“It’s like asking a court to look into a crystal ball and see what this young person will be like at age 25,” Vickrey said.
On June 7, a number of kids at Mill Creek assembled in the facility’s gymnasium for a special event. UFC fighter Court McGee stood before them and told his story, complete with his background of trouble with the law when he was younger. His story turned into that of addiction, with his lowest point being when he overdosed and was dead for eight minutes before being revived by paramedics.
“See me and you guys all speak the same language,” McGee told the crowd. “A lot of people don’t speak this language, I’m just standing on this side because I made it out.”
He later met with each and every one of those incarcerated in the juvenile facility. McGee gave advice and guidance to everyone inside Mill Creek who asked.
McGee told the Standard-Examiner afterward that he was happy to make the trip to juvenile facilities, and that he planned to visit all five long-term secure facilities in the state.
The passion behind his mission was palpable. His speech could have very well corrected the paths that those at Mill Creek were on.
“These kids aren’t damaged, they aren’t broken, they’re kids,” McGee said.
As for the four juveniles mentioned in this report, none of them were in attendance for McGee’s visit to Mill Creek.
Court documents show all four had either been transferred out of the facility and into the Weber County Jail, or they were already sentenced to the Utah State Prison.