One of the weaknesses of governing based on shrinking government is that, all too often, measures taken to save money in the short term end up being seriously expensive in the long run.
Utah’s predominantly Republican Legislature likes nothing better than shrinking budgets. But when those lawmakers decided not to restore funding to the Weber Valley Detention Center in Roy after federal funds dried up, they undercut the very budget they were trying to streamline.
Costs have gone up, families and supporters have been separated from the youths the system is supposed to be helping, and police officers spend more time transporting youths and less time enforcing the law.
Those consequences should be enough for legislators to admit they made a mistake and correct it before the situation substantially worsens, as it is sure to do.
The center houses troubled youths from Weber and Morgan counties. An analysis of the data by Salt Lake Tribune reporter Janelle Stecklein found that, without adequate funds to keep youths ordered into detention at the Weber County center, the number incarcerated outside Weber County has jumped by more than 370 percent.
Legislators, facing a reduction in federal funds last year, decided to fund the facility on a year-to-year basis with a substantially smaller allocation, and state juvenile officials cut the number of beds available at the Weber center from 34 to 16. An additional allocation has allowed officials there to add eight more beds. But judges are now forced to ship many juvenile offenders to Davis County’s Farmington Bay Youth Center about 30 miles away, adding transportation costs and further separating the youths from their families.
The Davis facility is straining to hold all the youths sent there, creating a public-safety nightmare. Since the cuts took effect last year, the number of Weber County youths taken to Farmington Bay has jumped from 85 to 401.
That has forced Davis County to send juveniles to Salt Lake County or not incarcerate them at all to avoid overcrowding.
Rehabilitation, not simply incarceration, is the mission of juvenile detention, but shipping offenders to a distant, overcrowded facility does nothing to improve outcomes.
Legislators should more thoroughly consider the long-term impact of their actions, especially when teenagers are involved. The consequences of mistakes made with youths can be felt far into the future.
They should restore funding to the Weber facility, and soon.