Herbert visits Utah juvenile detention center looking for reforms

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Juvenile Justice Services Director Brett Peterson, at Decker Youth Center in West Valley City, center left, is joined by Gov. Gary Herbert as they speak with some of the youth working through the program on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, during a tour to discuss its success after juvenile justice reforms were passed in 2017.

West Valley City • Gov. Gary Herbert had a big question for the five young people who sat in front of him Wednesday morning at Decker Lake Youth Center: How could Utah have helped them before they were sent to this place?

The five boys had broken the law and a judge determined they should serve some time in this secure care facility. Herbert wanted to know whether they wished something in their lives had been different, something that would have caused them to make different decisions.

One boy spoke up: His home life hadn’t been great and he fought with his parents. But he loved going to school as an escape from the stress at home. When a teacher would take the time to stop and ask how he was doing, it would make his day.

“Having those teacher figures and principals and people out in the community checking up on you would be helpful to a lot of youth,” he told Herbert.

The governor met with the boys Wednesday as he toured the facility and applauded Utah’s Juvenile Justice Services for making big changes that will benefit these young people — and save taxpayer dollars.

The Governor’s Office of Management and Budget spent four months with JJS officials in the beginning of 2018 going over their processes and figuring out better ways to bring services that would help keep young people out of the system, and keep the program within budget.

The effort came after a lot of change inside Juvenile Justice Services. Utah lawmakers in 2017 passed a bill that brought sweeping changes to the system, with emphasis on early intervention and keeping low-risk kids out of places like Decker Lake Youth Center.

But then a year later, in 2018, JJS was the subject of a scathing legislative audit — where auditors concluded that even though there had been a 35% drop in youths served since 2011, Juvenile Justice Services spending had increased over those years. Its appropriated funding rose more than $5 million from 2012 to 2017.

During a legislative hearing that January, legislators were troubled that the audit found JJS officials had presented inaccurate and “misleading” statistics when seeking state funding. For example, JJS for years had been reporting costs per bed — which were not always full on any given day — rather than costs per juvenile.

Also, inefficiencies in staffing and other resources were not being revealed.

But the changes that have been implemented since then have been paying off, according to officials. That included shifting the way staff members worked so they could focus more on spending time with young people. And they developed new ways to measure goals for the kids, and presented these plans in simple language so it was easier for youth and their parents to understand.

And the results? There’s been a 50% decrease in assaults with injuries in the facilities over the past 15 months. The average risk to reoffend has dropped by 31%. And staff has been able to dedicate more than 1,000 hours of time over the past nine months working directly with the kids rather than having to take them to court or doctor appointments. A dedicated “transport team” now does that work.

“We were able to, with the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, identify what it was we needed to do,” JJS director Brett Peterson said. “What was the underlying issue that needed to be addressed with our kids? And what the evidence showed us was [they need] to receive the right amount of treatment, at the right time, in the right way.”

The five boys — who were handpicked by JJS officials to meet the governor because of the progress they have made — said this method had been working for them. Where they previously would be quick to act without considering consequences, now they think things through. They’re learning new ways to be successful, and have high hopes for their future once they are released.

But is there anything that still needs to be changed, the governor asked?

“Be bold!” Herbert encouraged them. This was their chance to speak directly to the governor.

Most were complimentary of the program, saying the staff at Decker Lake has changed their lives. Some weren’t on track to graduate high school before coming here. Now, they are.

“I would have been in prison, if not here,” one said.

But one boy said he did have a suggestion.

Give young people a second chance, he said. There’s teenagers in Utah going to the adult prison. Too many kids, he said, are ending up there after their cases are bumped up into the adult court system.

Herbert promised to look into it. And as he left the boys Wednesday morning, he slipped his business card to one of them.

This was the boy who said that support from his teachers had been crucial. He grew up in Orem — just like Herbert did — and went to the same high school as the governor.

That young man would be released soon, and with Herbert’s contact information in hand, he has another person in his corner rooting for his success.