In the past two years, 3rd District Juvenile Court Judge James Michie has noticed a shift in his courtroom.

Gone are those smaller cases where young Utahns had been accused of smoking weed or getting in a schoolyard fight. Now, those before his court are almost universally accused of more serious crimes, and are looking at more serious penalties.

That’s exactly what Michie and others involved in the juvenile justice system are hoping for.

It was two years ago that Utah lawmakers passed legislation that brought sweeping changes to the juvenile justice system. The goal was to emphasize early intervention, and keep low-risk offenders in their homes instead of detention centers.

Part of that also included finding ways to help keep young people accused of minor crimes or behavior offenses like skipping school from ending up in front of judges like Michie at all.

So far, it’s been working.

“We’re seeing the high-level cases, which is exactly the intent of the legislation,” Michie said Monday. “We have big, hefty penalties that should be [just] for the high-level kids. We get a steady diet of pretty serious offenses.”

State data shows that since the Legislature passed the law in 2017, just over half of cases where Utah youth have been referred to court have ended with what they call a “nonjudicial” remedy, such as peer court at school or group counseling for a family. And there’s been a 44% decrease of youth being ordered out of their homes and into detention programs.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

A Pew Charitable Trust issue brief released Monday said the data shows “early promise” that the state is on its way to reforming the system so those who get in trouble do not end up committing more crimes in the future.

“The Utah story presents a strong case for looking to data and research to drive policy changes that positively impact youth, families and communities,” said Dana Shoenberg, senior manager of juvenile justice research and policy at The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project. “The reforms have allowed the state to reduce the footprint of the juvenile justice system.”

The 2017 legislation was a result of months of study by the Utah Juvenile Working Group, which is composed of juvenile court judges, attorneys, legislators and others appointed by the governor to study how young people are treated in the state’s justice system.

The working group found that Utah youths who were deemed “low-risk” often were progressing deeper into the juvenile system. And if juveniles were placed out of the home — whether that be in a detention center, a group home or other placement — they fared worse and reoffended more often that those who were allowed to stay where they were living.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, limited how much time a young person can spend in a detention center — with the exception of those accused of particular violent felonies — and puts a cap on fees and service hours that a juvenile court judge can order. It also encourages schools to take a tier-based response to juvenile delinquents rather than directly referring them to the court system.

State officials say that since this shift began two years ago, they’ve been able to take $18.9 million that had been spent on locking young offenders up and instead focused that funding to bring young people more services up front, particularly those in rural areas that previously had no other alternative but detention centers.

Brett Peterson, the director for Utah’s Juvenile Justice Services, said the early data is promising — particularly the finding that more young people are being kept out of detention centers.

“We’re giving that chance and opportunity to serve the kids in their homes, schools and communities rather than lockup,” he said.

It’s too early to see whether these changes will lower recidivism rates for young people, but Snow said Monday that he’s encouraged.

“The results are early,” he said, “but I’m pleased that these numbers show the outcomes and the direction we had hoped for seems to be occurring. I think that’s satisfying given the work that has gone into this.”