Farmington • For a long time, the only way a struggling teenager could get connected to state resources was by getting in trouble with the law. It took nothing short of a Utah judge’s order to get help.
“It was a bizarre process,” said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns.
It meant that teenagers who skipped school was mixed in a detention center with kids who were violent and accused of much more serious crimes. It put many kids on a trajectory where they progressed deeper into the criminal justice system.
“We were manufacturing little criminals,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. “We were spending the most possible money for the worst possible outcomes.”
But that changed in 2017 when Utah lawmakers passed legislation that revamped the juvenile justice system. The goal was to emphasize early intervention, and keep low-risk offenders in their homes instead of detention centers.
Those reform efforts have left a lot of empty space in what traditionally were locked facilities — space that will soon be used at the Farmington Bay Youth Center for anyone needing help to get kids connected to mental health assessments, therapy or after-school programs.
Gone are the 16 cement beds, locked doors and fluorescent lighting. In its place is a receiving center where parents, police or kids themselves can come when they need help. There are still several beds where youths can stay if they need a place to go for a night or two, but the rooms are not locked and the center is not there as punishment. Help can be accessed by anyone who needs it — and not just after a kid commits a crime.
“When you have a facility like this, it’s not law enforcement, it’s not criminal, you’re not sending a kid to a judge,” Hutchings said. “We have this team of people where now you can bring that kid in and get them all the stuff they need, the family can be brought in. It is the most radical change in the way we help families and children that I’ve ever seen.”
The remodel was completed with savings that came from the reforms, said Brett Peterson, the director of Utah’s Juvenile Justice Services. It’s a needed resource in Davis County, Peterson said, noting that locked detention commitments have decreased 31% from 2017 to 2020. But JJS’ “early intervention services” have increased by 180%. In 2017, about 41 youths a day were helped with services. Today, they help 114 kids per day.
The 2017 legislation was a result of months of study by the Utah Juvenile Working Group, which was composed of juvenile court judges, attorneys, legislators and others appointed by the governor.
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 elsewhere — they fared worse and reoffended more often than those who were allowed to stay where they were living.
The legislation limited how much time a young person can spend in a detention center, with the exception of those accused of particular violent felonies, and put a cap on fees and service hours that a juvenile court judge can order. It also encouraged schools to take a tier-based response to juvenile delinquents rather than directly referring them to the court system.
State data from 2019 shows the reforms have been working as intended. Since the Legislature passed the law in 2017, just over half of cases where Utah youths 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.
But a recent report from the nonprofit Voices for Utah Children concluded that the reform efforts haven’t been equitable, and have mostly benefited children who are white. The nonprofit said that while Utah has made “enormous strides” in reducing the number of kids in the juvenile justice system, racial inequities remain.