In March 2017, Utah’s Governor, Gary R. Herbert signed a landmark comprehensive set of research-based reforms designed to improve Utah’s juvenile justice system. House Bill 239 (HB 239), was sponsored by Representative Lowry Snow and Senator Todd Weiler and was intended to keep youth who can be safely supervised in the community and out of costly residential out-of-home placements. The bill also expanded community-based programs, and standardized practices to reduce disparities across racial and geographic lines, while also diverting youth charged with less serious offenses from formal court proceedings.
Similar to other states that passed significant juvenile justice reform, the legislation was created after creating a multi-agency Juvenile Justice Working Group to develop policy recommendations to promote public safety, limit costly out-of-home placements, reduce recidivism and improve outcomes. In June 2016, the 19-member working group included legislators, judges, state agency directors, a police chief, a defense attorney, an education stakeholder and a prosecutor. The working group did a comprehensive study of the state’s juvenile justice system by examining extensive data from the courts and child-serving agencies. Additionally, there were more than 30 roundtables and focus groups conducted throughout the state with a diverse array of stakeholders to mirror the working group. After reviewing the data, the group developed policy recommendations with technical assistance from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Crime and Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice.
The Juvenile Justice Working Group found that most referrals into Utah’s juvenile justice system were for misdemeanor offenses, and roughly 80 percent of first-time youth entering the juvenile court were at a low risk to reoffend. However, the Working Group also found that a high proportion of these low-level offenders were facing strict court requirements that were not appropriate to their risk level which were counterproductive, including significant financial obligations like fines and fees. Ultimately, many lower-level youths were placed out of home at a significant cost to the state. The average cost for out-of-home placement was more here.