The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 24, 2017

Utah joins state-led movement to reform juvenile justice

April 25, 2017

Late last week, Utah governor Gary Herbert ceremonially signed into law a bill to overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system. House Bill 239 is the product of a nearly yearlong state-led review of juvenile justice policies and practices.

State experts, assisted by The Pew Charitable Trusts, found Utah lacked consistent, fair standards for addressing the behavior of children referred to the state’s court system and was investing valuable resources into policies that weren’t working well for children, families, and communities.

The legislation builds on the national momentum to transform approaches to serving justice-involved youth.

Recidivism rates and racial and geographic disparities drove Utah toward change

Nationally, and in Utah, from 2001 to 2013, juvenile commitments to out-of-home placements, such as placements in a group home or secure facility, declined more than 50 percent. Some states, however, still report youth recidivism rates of more than 50 percent, indicating that their practices are not aligned with what research says works to prevent reoffending.  

State stakeholders across the country are also concerned about persistent and ongoing disparities in out-of-home placements by race and geography, which have increased in many places even as the overall population has declined.

Utah’s legislation, which had wide bipartisan support and passed nearly unanimously in the state's House and Senate, aims to reduce reliance on expensive and ineffective out-of-home placement options linked to racial and geographic disparities. Instead, it promotes approaches and interventions that improve outcomes for youth and their families.

Utahns can expect comprehensive changes

HB 239 comprehensively addresses many aspects of the juvenile justice system. The reforms include the following:

  • Create criteria to ensure youths adjudicated on less serious offenses and with limited delinquency history are not kept in state custody, including important restrictions on placing a youth out of home for violating a court order or committing a status offense like a curfew violation—a common practice before reform. 
  • Require pre-adjudication diversion and detention risk assessment to inform decisionmaking to more effectively use pretrial detention for youth. 
  • Strengthen early responses to behavior concerns by requiring diversion for some youth with lower-level offenses and limited delinquency history and taking truancy cases out of court.
  • Address counterproductive requirements that can exacerbate racial and geographic disparities by prohibiting the use of a lengthy list of standard orders of probation, lowering the maximum amount of fines and fees, implementing a sliding scale for payment for diversion fees, and closing the state-funded work camp programs where youth were removed from home to work off fines, fees, or community service hours when they could not afford or complete them while living at home. 
  • Prohibit the use of child welfare custody unless there is a finding of abuse, neglect, or dependency. Reviews of other juvenile justice systems found that youth adjudicated for a delinquency or status offense are sometimes placed in child welfare custody without any of the protections that apply to abused, neglected, or dependent children. The legislation also expands access to in-home services from the Department of Children and Family Services.

State juvenile justice reform accelerates across the nation

Bold reforms like Utah HB 239 demonstrate that elected state officials across the country continue to recognize and respond to the need for changes to their criminal and juvenile justice systems.

In the past five years, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, and Kentucky have made comprehensive changes to the way they address youth behavior that reaches the courts. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) supports these and other states as they implement high-quality, evidence-based interventions.

Changes to one state’s systems have initiated learning from place to place. The Youth First Initiative recently took stock of places that were closing underused youth prison facilities and shared lessons learned from six diverse states across the country. Tools like these help states build more effective systems to support children and families.

In addition, with funding from the OJJDP, Urban Institute researchers are working with on-the-ground stakeholders to get a better sense of what they need to support successful juvenile justice reforms, bridging between evidence and practices in states.

State leaders are driving changes to improve juvenile justice practices and outcomes. Utah provides an example for others to learn from as it works to improve its out-of-home placement policies, implements sound diversion practices, and limits fines and fees. 

Illustration by Gary Waters/Getty Images.

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