How an underserved Utah town plans to tackle a growing problem: juvenile detentions

With a federal grant, Magna aims to “keep kids busy” by boosting programs that work and jettisoning those that don’t.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cyprus High School in Magna on Thursday Jan. 3, 2019.

While working at the Magna and Kearns libraries, Trish Hull noticed they are welcoming after-school spaces for kids on the Salt Lake Valley’s west side.

The Kids Cafe, where youngsters can get a free meal, and creative programs attract those looking for a place to be while their parents work. They are a tremendous service, she said, but library programs can only go so far. She wishes for more spaces where Magna kids could play basketball, for example, and spend their time and energy.

“We don’t have a lot of services in Magna. We don’t have any drug treatment clinics. We have one health clinic, and it’s not free. We don’t have a Boys and Girls Club or a place for kids to go. We have a county rec center, but it’s not free,” Hull, a member of the township’s council and Magna’s mayor pro tempore, said. “We really need a place for our youth to hang out after school.”

That might be the starting point for the growing number of problems confronting Magna’s young people. As residents navigate a low-resource environment, youth detentions have increased since 2020, according to Salt Lake County.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trish Hull, branch manager at the Kearns Library gives an enthusiastic tour of the extensive resources the library offers on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. Kids on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley often go to libraries for their creative after-school programs.

To combat this, the Magna United Communities That Care Coalition received a $2 million community violence intervention grant from the Justice Department to be distributed over three years. Exactly how the funding will be used is still undetermined. But some preventive programs that worked in the past might be revived.

Hull, who also heads the coalition, said part of the grant would go toward expanding Choose Gang Free, a school-based gang prevention and intervention strategy.

“This is going to give us the opportunity to increase the number of advocates that we have in our schools,” Hull said. “Those advocates are very effective in working with kids who either want to get involved in gangs or are on the periphery of the gangs, or are involved in gangs.”

The coalition would also bring back Youth Court, a restorative justice system that gives first-time offenders an alternative to juvenile court. The young people often are directed to perform community service and participate in a diversion activity while a mentor checks with them weekly.

“It’s a program to stop that criminal behavior before it gets too big,” Hull said, “because they know that once they get involved in the juvenile court system, that can actually increase their risk of doing more crimes.”

She also pointed to parenting programs and peer-to-peer outreach through the Magna United Youth Coalition.

“It really doesn’t feel adequate to have a bunch of adults telling kids what to do,” she said. “You really need to have the youth involved and the youth speaking to you.”

Six years after becoming a metro township, with its own municipal government, Magna is one of the few communities still experiencing growth in the Granite School District, said Hull. But it hasn’t caught up on services and resources when compared with more affluent communities.

Keep kids busy

There are varying solutions to address juvenile detention, said Anthony J. Nocella II, associate professor in Salt Lake Community College’s criminal justice department. But, on a basic level, the solution lies in keeping kids busy.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Anthony Nocella leads a discussion with the members of the Utah chapter of Save the Kids from Incarceration, at Salt Lake Community College, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

Offering more community-based programs and building libraries and recreation centers can help — as can ensuring that existing facilities keep their doors open later with more organized activities such as sports, hip-hop, poetry slams, literacy development, and arts and crafts.

All these offerings, in addition to counseling, therapy and sex education, can prove vital, said Nocella, who is also director of outreach for Save the Kids, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping young people out of incarceration.

Utah has many outdoor opportunities, but many are not easily accessible, Nocella said. A way to reduce the inequity in the community could be partnering with outdoor equipment companies and offering free or cheap gear rentals for nontraditional sports programs like mountain biking and kayaking.

He said providing tennis courts and keeping skate parks open after dusk on the county’s west side can prevent children from getting into trouble.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skaters and cyclists practice tricks at the West Valley Skatepark, Monday, April 25, 2022.

“The Magna community is lacking a lot of government support and resources,” he said. “And I think that people in Magna are beautiful people, that if they were given the same attention as Draper or Sandy or Provo, they wouldn’t be in the same predicament.”

What doesn’t work

Besides offering programs that work, Hull said, identifying ones that don’t is essential.

“Things like Scared Straight, where you have kids go to prisons to get them to not ever want to be in prison,” she said, “actually had the exact opposite effect.”

More surveillance and harsher penalties don’t pencil out statistically, said Nocella. They also have a disproportionate impact on Black children and students with disabilities. Instead, there should be more therapists and counselors in schools.

“Students are having an increase of anxiety, as well as mental disabilities and cognitive disabilities,” he said. “So I think all of those issues need to be center stage in schools.”

Addressing food insecurity for low-income students and giving help to parents also have positive impacts — all with the aim of providing underserved kids with more resources and opportunities to transform an already tightknit community into a healthier one.

“I’m really proud of our kids,” Hull said. “We have a lot of kids who participate and volunteer in our events, and I think they’re growing up in a world that is diverse and they’re accepting and they are caring, and they want to do what’s good.”

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.