ST. GEORGE — Utah’s juvenile detention centers will soon begin admitting fewer young children and low-level offenders under new admission guidelines set to go into effect in August. The Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services held a public hearing Monday evening at St. George City Hall to discuss the topic with audience members.
The new rules come on the heels of sweeping legislation passed and signed into law in the 2017 Utah Legislature overhauling the juvenile justice system and will amend Utah administrative code regarding guidelines for admission to secure youth detention facilities.
Focusing on low-level and first-time offenders
Southern Utah Rep. Lowry Snow, who was in attendance at Monday’s hearing, sponsored “Juvenile Justice Amendments,” designated as HB 239 in the 2017 Legislature.
“There was a lot to the bill. I think it was one of the – in terms of volume – one of the largest bills passed this last session,” Snow said. “Its main focus was to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system by providing early intervention, especially those youth involved in low-level offenses and first-time offenders.”
Data examining what happens when kids are placed in secure facilities versus probation was evaluated extensively when the legislation was drafted.
“What we found was – especially for low-level offenders and first-time offenders – the more involvement our young people were having with the juvenile justice system, the more likely we were to see them again, the higher the recidivism,” Snow said.
Under the legislation, some of the resources previously dedicated to detention centers will be diverted to early intervention strategies working directly with youth and their families.
“We still want to hold these young people accountable,” Snow said, “because that’s important, not only for society, but for their rehabilitation.”
The changes are aimed primarily at low-risk offenders.
“There’s nothing in this legislation that is intended to put dangerous youth out into the public.”
Many children were previously placed in detention centers for school-based offenses, Snow said, such as truancy. Snow said:
The data shows, again, by coming up with alternative ways for dealing with those offenses gives us better outcomes in the long run. It prioritizes and emphasizes the value of children in their homes … instead of taking them out of their homes to meet their needs, leaving them in their homes and bringing resources to them and their family. Kids do better instinctively when they’re with their families.
Changes to admission guidelines
The stated goals of the new guidelines, according to the Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services, are to protect the community, hold youth accountable and ensure that only youth who are an immediate risk to the community are admitted to detention.
Many of the new guidelines for detention admission criteria are a requirement under the new legislation and include several key removals, additions and revisions to previous code.
Several previous admission guidelines were removed, including:
- Three or more misdemeanors in a single criminal episode are no longer necessarily grounds for admission to detention.
- Youth who have failed to appear in court on a criminal offense in the past 12 months.
- Youth who run from court-ordered placement.
The additions are as follows:
- Youth ages 10 and 11 can only be admitted on charges classified as violent felony.
- Any single misdemeanor, as opposed to three, involving harm against another person or weapons violations are now admissible offenses.
- Four new class A misdemeanors for sexual offenses, such as sexual battery and lewdness, are now included as admissible offenses.
- Traffic offenses involving DUI charges and leaving the scene of a crash with injury.
Undocumented and unaccompanied youth involved in immigration-specific cases may now only be held at the request of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They can still be held for offenses committed under the same requirement as any other youth.
The guideline changes dovetail with the legislation’s goal of reducing the detention centers’ population of low-level offenders and are projected to reduce the number of children entering the system on new charges.
“We’re projecting that there will be an overall 10.6 percent reduction in admission for youth in detention on new charges,” Donovan Bergstrom, Juvenile Justice Services program director, said.
Offenders in the 10 to 11 age group will be impacted most by the new rules, with an anticipated reduction of admissions on new charges of 71 percent. Of the 32 children in that age group admitted to detention in the last fiscal year, only nine would have been admitted under the new guidelines.
Other age groups all hold to a similar average of about a 10 percent reduction, according to the division’s projections.
Three different audience members questioned how the guidelines may affect youth who may have otherwise been held in detention receive help, especially those coming from potentially abusive situations.
“If we were using detention for family issues, for abuse and neglect in the past,” Bergstrom said, “we shouldn’t have been doing that.”
Bergstrom said that he is aware of cases in which youth who were suicidal or experiencing family issues were admitted to detention.
“We should be able to, as a good system, provide that support in the home or in shelters or in other youth services through the local mental health authority or other community agencies,” he said.
Snow reiterated that such youth and other low-level offenders can face strong elements of criminality from higher-risk populations during their stay in detention.
“The worst case scenario in many cases is putting those children who have some problems in an environment with young people who have significant serious problems,” Snow said.
Instead of resorting to confinement, first-time and low-level offenders will be provided with alternative care under the provisions of the new legislation.
“Attached to all of our detention centers across the state, we do have receiving centers and shelters, so there are other locations for those youth to go,” said Reg Garff, Juvenile Justice Services director for rural areas in the state, including Washington County. “We are bolstering those resources.”
New resources, such as crisis intervention centers, will be opened, especially in rural areas.
“Where those services have not been available 24 hours in the past,” Garff said, “they are now.”
Comment period ends soon
All comment on the new rules must be heard and recorded by July 24 before they go into effect Aug. 1.
The public hearing in St. George was the first of three, and the other two are scheduled to take place in Salt Lake City and Logan at the following times and locations:
- Tuesday, July 11, from 7-9 p.m. | Salt Lake City Library, 210 E. 400 S. (Conference Room, Level 4), Salt Lake City.
- Wednesday, July 12, from 7-9 p.m. | Logan Library, 255 N. Main St. (Bridger Room), Logan.
- Read the guidelines: R547-13 – Guidelines for Admission to Secure Youth Detention Facilities
- Read the bill: 2017 – HB 239 – Juvenile Justice Amendments
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