Keeping kids out of jail: new report shows progress on alternatives

Number of Utah youths held behind bars drops by 20%

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Garff expresses some frustration that recent budget cuts have endangered "receiving centers," that have for more than 20 years offered a buffer between doing nothing and sending a kid into confinement.

Before the receiving centers, Garff said, an officer would either "cite and release" or drive youth offenders around until they could find a parent. The result was an enormous gap between doing nothing and doing too much, especially given routine, minor offenses.

Most of the offenses handled by youth courts are quite minor. The two biggest categories handled by Layton youth courts, Karlene Kidman said, are truancy and retail theft, followed by curfew violations. Youth courts in Utah cannot handle felonies or high level misdemeanors.

Solutions are flexible. For instance, the Layton youth court helps arrange academic counseling and tutoring, Kidman said.

Family engagement

One crucial difference compared to older models is that Utah youth courts require parents to attend hearings with the child, rather than treating the child in isolation. This creates opportunities for learning and avenues to counseling when called for, Kidman said.

Her youth court members will often recommend counseling to families. "We cannot order the family, but we can order the youth. We have youth classes we can send them to." But Kidman said that 75 percent of the time families will accept and follow through on the suggestion for family counseling.

"Often the parents are just saying, 'I'm shocked. How come my kid did this,'" Kidman said. "The parents do really want to help their youth."

"Family-focused interventions" work better than traditional juvenile justice, which tended to ignore the family and isolate the youth from it, Lubow said.

The traditional model, Lubow said, is "family-unfriendly and family-unfocused."

"We have a system that does not focus on family," he said, "that is trying to change the behavior of 14- and 16-year-olds as if they are mature adults, capable of independent decision-making."

Traditional approaches "exclude the primary socialization force in their lives," Lubow said. "We operate with a theory of change that says that a 10-minute meeting between a youth and his probation officer has more impact than what goes on in the household on a day-to-day basis."

email: eschulzke@desnews.com.

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