ST. GEORGE — There’s a quandary at the heart of the debate around juvenile incarceration. On one hand, evidence has shown that community justice programs like diversion and front-end services like counseling can lead to more positive outcomes for youth. On the other hand, hard-liners say that such an approach is costly, and it doesn’t hold youth accountable.
The Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services released a report Jan. 8 that cited a 46% percent reduction in youth locked in detention statewide and a 19% increase in early intervention.
Additionally, the report states, $9 million was reinvested into front-end services – the result of legislation sponsored by Utah Rep. Lowry Snow and signed into law in 2018.
“We want to reinvest that money into services for families and children,” Snow told St. George News. “This is especially important for rural areas like Washington County, where they lack the same access to services that youth on the Wasatch Front have.”
Though he’s happy with the results so far, Snow said there’s still work to be done.
“At the same time, we must also concentrate on more serious offenders,” Snow said. “We need to make sure the public is safe, while also getting services, like education, to those young people.”
To that end, Snow, along with Juvenile Justice Services and Dixie State University, is trying to ensure that incarcerated youth may have access to university courses that will be delivered via video.
“Education is the antidote to recidivism,” he said. “We’ve got to invest in educational outreach. This program will provide course materials to work on, so they can prepare for their release and get jobs for themselves.”
Snow said that too often the adult population receives attention, while youth are forgotten.
“The way we handle young people determines how they develop,” Snow said. “Data shows that the way we deal with them in schools has an impact on them as adults. When mistreated, they may develop social problems. I’m trying to get to the headwater.”
Donovan Bergstrom, program director at the Utah Office of Youth Services, said that this is where front-end services are key.
“We offer school-based and community-based programs for students with ongoing problematic behavior,” Bergstrom said. “These include skill-based groups, problem solving groups, emotional regulation and mindfulness. We also offer referrals to other services, if they need them.”
Young people who are struggling may also be referred to youth services by their school, parents or law enforcement. Someone will reach out to begin a screening within 48 hours.
“That’s huge because the only way they used to be able to get help was by getting involved with the courts,” Bergstrom said. “Our main goal is to keep young people in their homes, schools and communities. Once they go to a juvenile facility, the outcomes become much worse, recidivism increases.”
And with that, the cost to the state increases, too. According to Sticker Shock 2020: The Cost of Youth Incarceration, a study done by the Justice Policy Institute, the cost of locking up youth is on the rise. In Utah, it costs $246.13 per day to lock up one young person, which adds up to $89,837 per year.
By the most recent count from 2015, compiled by The Sentencing Project, Utah locked up 453 juveniles. If Sticker Shock’s numbers are correct, that’s $40,696,161 per year. So, it may be safe to consider alternatives to incarceration as an investment.
That’s why the 25% decrease in youths served in lockdown in the Fifth Judicial District Courthouse, from 172 in 2017 to 128 in 2020, may be good news to taxpayers and communities. During that same period, youths served in youth services, and early intervention rose from 693 to 814, which marks a shift in priorities and approach.
The report also said that over 130 locked rooms had been taken offline, and more than 50 employees were reassigned to locked settings to early intervention services positions.
Snow said that he’s aware that investments in Utah’s children may not pay off till they’re adults, but the wait is well worth it.
“This isn’t all tax dollars and budget stuff,” he said. “This helps families and children, which in turn helps communities. That’s what it’s about.”
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