Incarcerated youths in Utah could earn a college degree in custody under a new bill

The program proposed in HB279 would be a first for the state.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pictured is Juvenile Justice Services' Decker Lake Youth Center in West Valley City on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020.

Youths in Utah’s juvenile justice system could take college classes while in custody — and earn up to a bachelor’s degree — under a landmark bill proposed Tuesday.

If approved, the program would be a first for incarcerated kids and young adults here, who currently have access only to high school curriculum in detention.

“This bill will give them an opportunity,” said Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, who’s sponsoring the measure. “I think the antidote for recidivism in both our adult and youth systems is education.”

The measure, HB279, passed unanimously in committee Tuesday. It would create a partnership with Dixie State University to provide online courses for those in juvenile detention centers who want to enroll. Incarcerated youth could then earn a technical certificate, associate or bachelor’s degree, or just take credits.

Some of the youths in the justice system who commit serious crimes — like murder or aggravated kidnapping — are there “fairly long term,” Snow said Tuesday. And under a bill he also sponsored last year, which was signed into law, they can stay in juvenile detention centers up to age 25. Previously, an individual might be released or transferred at age 21 to a jail or prison to finish a sentence.

Especially with that age change, having a program so they can potentially use their time in the system and leave with a degree, Snow said, is critical. And, he believes, it will help those individuals get jobs and “readjust and become a member of the public.”

He framed it as an investment.

Currently, for each kid and young adult in the system, the state is paying about $200,000 a year to incarcerate them. By comparison, the college education program through Dixie State would cost $300,000 a year to run and educate multiple kids. The hope is that Utah would ultimately save money in having fewer youth return to custody if they can get a steady job with their degree when they are released.

Brett Peterson, director of Juvenile Justice Services, said there are about 100 youth in custody now, between the ages of 16 and 25, who could apply for the program. He expects about 30 to do so.

Most of those kids, he said, fell into the juvenile system because the odds were stacked against them in life. “This group is almost always in the intergenerational poverty cohort,” he said. “Almost all of these youth have childhood trauma.”

Peterson believes access to college while in detention could help turn the tide.

The program also would include advising support for the students who enroll. The bill notes that youth would have access to counselors “to ensure that the students’ higher education courses align with the academic and career goals defined in the students’ plans for college and career readiness.”

Nathan Caplin, a professor at Dixie State, who has helped draft the effort, so far, said Tuesday, “It’s near and dear to our heart” to see them succeed.

The proposal, which now moves to the House floor for a vote, also comes after the state has focused on addressing shortcomings in Juvenile Justice Services, including the fact that reform efforts have helped more white youth than the racial minorities who are still overrepresented in the system.