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Report: Fewer Kids Incarcerated in Utah, U.S.

PHOTO: In Utah, the number of young people behind bars has dropped 20 percent; nationally, the decrease is 40 percent. Photo courtesy of AECF.
PHOTO: In Utah, the number of young people behind bars has dropped 20 percent; nationally, the decrease is 40 percent. Photo courtesy of AECF.
February 27, 2013

SALT LAKE CITY - A report released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows a big drop in the number of youths behind bars - and, at the same time, juvenile crime rates also are down.

Utah saw a 20 percent decrease in its youth incarceration rate from 1997 to 2010, according to the report. However, Susan Burke, director of the state Division of Juvenile Justice Systems, said state budget cuts could reverse the trend. Some service hours have been cut back and the agency might have to close facilities in Blanding and Cedar City.

"It's ultimately going to end up with more kids locked up for more serious offenses," she said, "because we're not able to give them the help that they need, when they need it."

Even as Utah looks at alternatives to incarceration for young people, state lawmakers are considering Senate Bill 218, which would require a broader funding base for receiving centers and youth service centers. Burke said she isn't sure that's possible.

"In the more rural areas where resources are very limited," she said, "those communities just have not been able to contribute. So my concern is that, if the Legislature intends that every center has a broad base of funding support, we could be in trouble in some of those areas that just don't have the local resources to do so."

Burke said she is proud of the progress in the system, including more comprehensive screening of young people at the local centers and a new pilot program that allows some youths to remain at home to receive services.

Laura Speer, the Casey Foundation's associate director of policy and research, said Utah, as other states, has learned that detention is an expensive and often ineffective strategy when three-quarters of the young people locked up are there for nonviolent offenses.

"They have a chance to get their lives back on track," she said, "and so we want to make sure they get put in the best possible program to get them back on track."

The report said 684 youths were incarcerated in Utah in 2010, down from 768 in 1997. While the numbers have declined nationwide, the report notes that the United States still locks up juveniles at a rate far higher than does any other industrialized nation.

The report, “Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States,” is online at aecf.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - UT