Being a "beat reporter" can be a big responsibility, because the reporter is supposed to know what's going on in his "area of expertise." Sometimes it can be embarrassing: I had been covering the social services beat for several months when I innocently asked one day, "Who covers youth corrections?"
I thought it was part of the juvenile court system. I learned it was my responsibility. We can assume it didn't get much coverage for a little while.But I recently spent an entire day with the director of the Division of Youth Corrections, Ron Stromberg; Wayne Holland, who heads up some of the programs, including those involving interaction with Native Americans; and Garrett Wilkins, with the Office of Community Operations.
I went with them to Vernal and Fort Duchesne. You can learn a lot in six hours in a car.
Utah's programs have received international attention and several honors.
An NBC documentary called "Crime, Punishment and Kids" cited Utah for having a system that successfully treats serious and chronic delinquent offenders. Experts refer to Utah as a model for other states to follow.
The London Times based an entire article about effective juvenile justice program on the division, and Scotland sent an official to look at the programs.
Other states pop in and out to visit facilities and discuss programs frequently. And the National Conference for State Legislatures did an in-depth study of the division. The list could go on.
But what, exactly, makes Utah's system stand out?
Stromberg believes several things are responsible, like emphasis on putting facilities where the trouble is. All of the programs are oriented toward treatment to cure inappropriate behavior, rather than just punish it.
The division offers other services besides detention, including group homes, foster care, shelter, and education programs.
In the words of the division's annual report for 1987, programs and facilities are "flexible, nonauthoritarian and well-organized."
But the key is a sincere and well-run effort to keep deliquents out of jail if possible. Division staff members don't think kids should be locked up for non-criminal or minor criminal offenses.
They try to avoid what Holland called "overuse and inappropriate use of facilities. We work closely with local law enforcement to provide services."
All it takes, sometimes, he said, is a little talk with a law enforcement officer, the kid, and his parents. "That can have a lasting effect."
It's not just a matter of being nice to kids. In some cases, it becomes a matter of life and death. Youths placed in detention sometimes commit suicide. They can learn how to get in worse trouble. They cost a lot of money.
"The really nice thing," Stromberg told me, "is that we find the fewer we lock up, the better it is for the kid and the less likely he is to continue crime. And it sure saves a lot of money."
The division operates three shelter-detention units in the state - in Blanding, Richfield and Vernal.
The facilities are divided so that half is a shelter that serves up to six youths, while the other half provides secure lock-up detention for four. The division has a two-page guideline telling what defenses are appropriately handled by detention.
Staffers Dale Smuin and Kim Abplanalp gave me a tour of the Vernal facility, which they said serves about 25 a month.
The only route to detention is through the Juvenile Court. It's not a long-term facility, but according to Smuin, it shouldn't be. "We generally see that the attitude gets better for about eight days, then it starts downhill."
Parents can visit, but aren't allowed to bring in anything. There's both a school room and a court room, so it's pretty much a self-contained unit.
"You get so you can tell what's going to happen and what isn't," Smuin said. "If you learn to read the kids. It's a real challenge and we learn something every day."
"It's the same every day, but the kids are different - very different," Abplanalp said. "So we treat them that way and design programs to deal with each one."
In the process, they solve problems, save money, and bring Utah acclaim.