The NCSL Blog


By Anne Teigen

Utah passed wide-ranging juvenile justice reform with broad support in 2017, and initial data shows the state is reducing the number of youth in custody and reinvesting into services in the community, while juvenile referrals to court continue to drop. 

HB 239 made 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 aim of HB 239 was to intervene earlier, reduce out-of-home placements for youth exhibiting delinquent behavior for the first time and focus residential beds on youth who pose a serious risk to public safety. 

The law established statutory standards for which youth may be removed from their homes, established standards and eligibility criteria for pre-court diversions, capped fines and fees, limited school-based court referrals, and set limits on the amount of time youth can spend in confinement and under probation. Read more information on Utah’s law. 

The measure designated $1 million in ongoing appropriations to support the law’s implementation and directs the state to calculate averted costs from reductions in out-of-home placements and prioritize reinvestment of those savings in community programs.

Though the full impact of the law will take years to be realized, in just two years, the positive effects of the law are starting to show.

In July 2018, the Department of Human Services reported $18.9 million in reinvestment and reallocation of current resources into service expansion in the community. Services funded through the savings include:

  • Nonresidential services in every county for youth involved with the courts and for those in need of services outside of the juvenile justice system.
  • Alternative programs for addressing youth behavior in schools without a court referral.
  • In rural areas, evidence-based at-home services and new receiving centers to provide stabilization and mobile response services for youth with mental health needs.
  • Expansion of home detention to every judicial district as an alternative to detention.
  • Substance use and mental health treatment, and wraparound services with family and youth peer support.
  • Supports for youth transitioning home from out-of-home placement, including transportation.

Recent numbers from the Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee are also promising. Juvenile court referrals fell 23% between fiscal years 2016 and 2018, showing fewer youth are entering the juvenile justice system.

Additionally, detention admissions were down 44% between 2016 and 2018 and the state closed two detention units at Salt Lake Valley Detention Center and Slate Canyon Youth Center because of a drop in nightly bed counts. 

“Prior to this law, we were pulling kids out of the home for noncriminal behavior. Now, we are working toward a system that prioritizes accountability and rehabilitation within families and within our communities," said Senator Todd Weiler (R), a member of the Juvenile Justice Working Group that helped create the law.

Representative Lowry Snow (R) echoed that sentiment: "What I learned is that court-involved young people and their parents often lack a clear road map for navigating out of the system. In addition, they lack adequate family support services to help them when they are home. One of the designs of HB 239 is to provide parents and youth with more certainty regarding their sentence and specific timeframes for moving them through and out of the system.”

Anne Teigen is the program director for NCSL's Criminal Justice Program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.