Washington—Utah Governor Gary Herbert (R) today announced the enactment of comprehensive juvenile justice legislation that will promote public safety, hold youth offenders accountable, control costs, reduce recidivism, and improve outcomes for youth, families, and communities. By 2022, House Bill 239 is expected to cut the population of juveniles placed in state custody by 47 percent compared with previously projected levels, freeing up more than $70 million for reinvestment in evidence-based alternatives to incarceration over the next five years. Gov. Herbert signed the bill March 24.
“Utah leaders turned to data and research to drive these important reforms,” says Jake Horowitz, research and policy director for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project, which assisted in the reform effort. “Using proven strategies, this legislation will protect public safety.”
In 2015, Utah passed extensive adult criminal justice reform by a substantial majority. The new law is based on policy recommendations from the interbranch Utah Juvenile Justice Working Group, which was established in June 2016 at the request of Gov. Herbert, Chief Justice Matthew Durrant, House Speaker Gregory Hughes (R), and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser (R). With technical assistance from Pew and the Crime and Justice Institute, the 19-member group produced a comprehensive assessment of Utah’s juvenile justice system. The analysis drew upon an extensive review of the state’s court and juvenile services data, national research on reducing recidivism, and policies and practices from other states. The working group also collected feedback from more than 30 stakeholder roundtables held across the state.
The working group found that although most youths enter the juvenile justice system for low-level offenses, many remain stuck in the system for long periods because of excessive court-ordered supervision conditions and a lack of access to evidence-based services, such as family therapy and mental health treatment. Ultimately, more than half of youths committed to state custody are convicted of a new offense within two years of release. Out-of-home placements cost taxpayers as much as $127,750 per year per youth—17 times the cost of probation.
In November, the working group issued a report detailing the findings of its assessment, as well as policy recommendations that formed the basis of H.B. 239. That same month, the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice approved the group’s proposals. H.B. 239 passed unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 67-4 in the House.
The new law will:
- Expand effective pre-court interventions, focus pre-adjudication detention on higher-risk youths, and develop local detention alternatives statewide.
- Protect public safety by prioritizing space in state facilities and community supervision for those who pose the highest risk while reinvesting in evidence-based programs to hold youth offenders accountable and reduce recidivism.
- Support performance-based contracting for programs delivered to juveniles, increase training for staff, and improve system accountability.
Pew and its partners have assisted more than 30 states with similar data-driven analyses and consensus-based policy recommendations, including seven that have enacted comprehensive reforms to their juvenile justice systems.
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