FARMINGTON — Utah’s old way of handling juvenile offenders was “manufacturing little criminals,” one legislator said, and costing the state a lot of money.
At the Farmington Bay Youth Center on Friday, officials showed how reform efforts kicked off in 2016 have reached another milestone.
Instead of routinely being hauled off by police officers or headed into court, many misdemeanor youth offenders now go to a new receiving center.
The center, a newly remodeled section of the Farmington Bay facility, may route a teen into mental health, substance abuse or other services, with little or no police involvement.
No harsh lights or jail cells; it’s more like a clinic or office atmosphere.
Putting a misdemeanor offender in a detention center or a home with other offenders meant “the chances for reoffending went up dramatically,” state Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said during an open house at the new receiving center.
“In some instances turning them into hardened criminals,” he added.
The system was sending into state detention some juveniles who were racking up school tardiness violations or not paying fines.
“How is a 14-year-old supposed to pay a fine?” Weiler asked.
State Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said the old system presented a perverse dilemma for a family with a troubled teen.
“The only way to get help, a family had to get that kid in trouble to get in front of a judge to order services,” Hutchings said.
He referred to national research documenting a “school to prison pipeline.”
“When a kid starts struggling and is sent off to jail, even if for a day, he gets that label and ends up too often in adult prison,” Hutchings said. “It changes the trajectory of their whole lives.”
A similar receiving center is located at the Weber Valley Youth Center in Ogden, the first of its kind in the state.
“This is what we’ve been dying for,” Hutchings said. “Families now have a place to walk in and ask for help, without any of those long-term consequences.”
Juvenile detention has dropped 31% in Weber, Davis and Morgan counties since changes ordered by 2017’s House Bill 239 took effect, said Brett Peterson, director of the Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services.
Weiler, who sponsored the bill, said it was a hard battle to get it done. It started with a task force in 2016.
“We got some blowback from juvenile court judges and school districts,” Weiler said.
Regarding school officials, Weiler said, “We told them, hey, you can’t just pick up the phone and call the cops and ship off a kid anymore.”
Peterson said most first-time juvenile offenders in Utah, about 80% according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, are at low risk of committing more crimes.
The receiving centers are a “one-stop shop” where school principals, who are not trained to deal with suicide threats and other behavioral problems, can refer families, Hutchings said.
“One call to get to the right place and have this team of people get them all the stuff they need,” he said.
“This is the most radical change in the way we help families and children that I have ever seen,” Hutchings said.
Rather than “manufacturing little criminals,” Weiler said, the changes are allowing more teens to be successful, the whole goal of the reforms.
Peterson said money saved by reduced detention volume has been plowed into the receiving centers and other aspects of the reforms.
HB 239 established standards and criteria for pre-court diversions, capped fines and fees, limited school-based court referrals, and set limits on the amount of time youth can spend in detention centers and under probation, according to the NCSL.
The reforms were projected to save the state $70 million in operating costs to be rerouted into the reform programs.