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Reform Leads To Progress In Utah's Juvenile Justice System

Jon Reed
Gov. Gary Herbert, along with Kristen Cox of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget and Juvenile Justice Services Director Brett Peterson, spoke with five minors in detention at the Decker Lake Youth Center.

About a year after major reforms to Utah’s juvenile justice system, early indications show the state is heading in the right direction, detaining fewer kids and reducing staffing inefficiencies. 

Gov. Gary Herbert joined officials from the Division of Juvenile Justice Services (JJS) at the Decker Lake Youth Center, a high-security detention facility in West Valley City, to tout the program’s successes and address changes that may still be needed.

JJS officials said that by focusing on high-level crimes and evidence-based treatment plans for individuals, they’ve seen the average risk of recidivism drop by 31%.

Herbert said the reforms are not only changing the lives of the kids themselves, but also improve public safety, bring children and their families closer together and save taxpayer dollars.

“It’s win-win-win-win all the way around,” Herbert said.

A 2016 analysis of the state’s juvenile justice system found that most minors were getting locked up for low-level offenses. It also found that they were kept in detention for too long and that the longer they stayed, the higher their risk for reoffending.

“We were kind of going to the most extreme punishment without looking for off ramps for these lower level offenses,” Anna Thomas said in a phone interview after Wednesday’s event. She is a policy analyst for the nonprofit advocacy group Voices for Utah Children.

Photo of a holding cell at the Decker Lake Youth Center.
Credit Jon Reed / KUER
The Decker Lake Youth Center is a high-security detention facility in West Valley City.

Fewer kids are ending up in secure care facilities like Decker, Thomas said, which means less money is spent on expensive and ineffective late interventions. Instead, she said those savings are going towards addressing symptoms, such as providing more support for teachers and law enforcement who deal with kids before they end up in court. 

And for minors who do commit more serious crimes and are placed in custody, they spend an average of 12.5 hours per week in individual therapy and counseling sessions, designed to help change negative mindsets and get them back home within six months. 

“We wanted to make sure that they were getting the right treatment at the right time,” said Mike Butkovich, director of correctional facilities for JJS. They can then “use those skills when they go back to the community.”

Despite the reform’s progress so far, there are still areas of concern, Thomas said. Too many young people are brought into the juvenile justice system when they could be better handled within their own families or communities. The system also disproportionately affects youth of color.

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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