Juvenile justice commission asking Utah lawmakers for more funds
Courts • Youth offender numbers are down, but problems are more complex.
Published: December 26, 2012 09:27AM
Updated: April 8, 2013 11:33PM

Without an infusion of funds, the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice says Utah is at risk of losing ground in its effort to protect communities and provide youth who commit crimes with the services they need to stop law-breaking behavior, according to a new report.

Although the number of youth referred to juvenile justice services is flat after several years, budget cuts have left community, court and law enforcement agencies struggling to handle the thousands of youths — more than 20,000 last year — who commit crimes.

“The bad news is the kids we do see have much more complicated needs,” said Lisa-Michele Church, juvenile court administrator and co-author of the report.

The commission is asking the Utah Legislature to provide at least $5 million in funding to meet juvenile justice services needs.

The state, beginning in 2008, respondedto fewer juvenile offenders by cutting probation officers, closing community, detention and secure facility beds, and eliminating a sex offender assessment unit. At the same time, the system lost about $7 million in funding, cuts that nicked youth receiving centers, diversion, work and supervision programs, and lock-up facilities.

In some parts of the state, receiving centers are no longer operating 24 hours a day, said Susan Burke, director of Juvenile Justice Services and the study’s co-author. In Weber County, the number of detention beds was cut nearly in half; that now means that youth are being transported and held in a detention center in Davis County — a hardship for law enforcement, attorneys and families.

“We have serious concerns about the reduction in juvenile receiving centers in the state and Weber County is a major concern,” said Frank W. Budd, executive director of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association.

Youth also are often waiting in detention longer than they should and some youth with specific treatment needs are being sent to inappropriate facilities.

“The very worst thing you want to do is put the low-risk kids with the high-risk kids [in detention],” Church said. “We cannot have an officer off the streets to drive a juvenile 40 miles.”

Just 311 youth committed severe crimes that required them to be sent to secure facilities last year. A majority were referred to juvenile court for misdemeanor offenses, such as truancy or graffiti, and most of those were served in diversion and work programs. For 68 percent of the youth who land in juvenile court, it is a one-time occurrence — a signal that such early intervention works, Church said.

But only 1,520 of the 12,000 youth who need such treatment as substance abuse counseling can be accommodated now because of limited resources. And it’s not just the kids who need the help. About half of the youth in the juvenile justice system live in households where one or more adults have a drug and alcohol problem.

Treatment for both child and parent is “what’s going to change the culture of the families we’re talking about,” Church said.

While referrals are down overall, some pockets of the state are overloaded. In Utah’s 8th judicial district — which serves Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah counties — there is a single juvenile judge whose case load is currently at 190 percent of what is considered appropriate.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert recognized that need by including $353,300 in his budget proposal for a second juvenile judge and staff in the 8th District. Herbert also has proposed $750,000 in ongoing funds for youth receiving centers and $1.2 million for work diversion programs.

Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, warned commission members that getting more money could be a hard sell since “we cut budgets and things are getting better.”

But Burke said the fact the courts are seeing fewer juvenile offenders may be misleading.

If we don’t invest in services early we will be creating a pipeline that goes straight to the Point of the Mountain,” Burke said.

brooke@sltrib.com