By Anne Teigen
A sweeping juvenile justice reform bill passed the Utah legislature this month and was enacted into law with broad support.
Sponsored by Representative Lowry Snow (R), House Bill 239 makes numerous changes to Utah’s juvenile code to keep lower-level delinquent youth out of costly detention and instead provide evidence-based, home-based counseling and supervision in the community.
"The main purpose of the juvenile system is to help rehabilitate young people and get them on their way and out of the system," Snow said. "Not keep them in."
The bill is a product of the hard work of the inter-branch Utah Juvenile Justice Working Group, a 19-member task force appointed by state leadership and charged with studying state-specific data as part of a comprehensive review of Utah’s juvenile justice system. The Working Group received technical assistance from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.
The Working Group found that the majority of referrals into the juvenile justice system in Utah are for misdemeanor offenses, and about 80 percent of youth entering the court system for the first time present a low risk to reoffend. Yet a high proportion of these low-level offenders were being placed out of home, at a significant cost to the state.
In fact, out-of-home placement was costing an average of $95,000 per youth per year, up to 17 times more than community supervision. Despite the difference in cost to taxpayers, rates of re-offending were very similar—more than 50 percent of young people released from probation and from state custody were convicted of another crime within two years.
These findings by the Working Group laid the foundation for HB 239, which establishes statutory standards for which youth may be removed from their homes and redirects averted costs toward expanding effective community-based services to all court districts in the state.
Additionally, the bill establishes standards and criteria for pre-court diversions, caps fines and fees, limits school-based court referrals, and sets limits on the amount of time youth can spend in detention centers and under probation.
Rep. Eric Hutchings (R) said the new law "creates a process where we use the right-size solution for the right-size problem," avoiding overreliance on incarceration.
The law is aimed at intervening earlier, reducing out-of-home placements for youth exhibiting delinquent behavior for the first time, and focusing residential beds on youth who pose a serious risk to public safety. HB 239 is projected to reduce Utah’s population of youth placed in state custody for delinquency or status offenses by a 47 percent reduction from projected baseline levels without policy change. This is projected to free up more than $70 million in state funds for reinvestment into evidence-based programs from reductions in operating costs and savings from out-of-home placement contracts.
Anne Teigen is a program principal in NCSL's Criminal Justice program.