Pressure caused by burgeoning growth in the state's juvenile offender population has put the two governmental entities responsible for youth corrections at odds.
The state Division of Youth Corrections believes the state's Juvenile Court judges are too liberal in sentencing teens to already-crowded temporary detention centers.The judges, however, balk at any sentencing restrictions, arguing they need broad discretion to deal with juvenile offenders individually.
Two recently released state reports that reviewed the state's juvenile-justice system offered no permanent solutions to the problem, although both touched on the issue.
A new task force report for the state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice notes the lack of secure facilities available for the growing juvenile offender population and adds that secure lock-up is the most expensive form of punishment.
It recommends continuing development of alternative programs to lock-up and applauds more authority for school-based enforcement measures against less serious juvenile crimes.
But Juvenile Court Judge Les D. Brown urged a legislative interim committee recently to be cautious about any proposed legislation that would take sentencing discretion away from the judges.
The few long-term secure facilities - three for a total of 70 beds - are full with the most dangerous juvenile offenders, so they can't take the lesser offender a judge believes needs short-term confinement, he said.
New diagnostic facilities designed to evaluate and treat mental or emotional problems are not secure, the judge added.
"So short-term confinement is not available to the judges," Brown said. "And some juveniles need short-term confinement."
But Judith Dituri, an analyst for the Legislative Auditor General's Office, said statutes governing the rights of judges to sentence juveniles to the detention centers are confusing.
"The statutes need to be revised to better define legislative intent," she said.
The statutes allow judges to confine juveniles for violating terms of probation and other court orders, but also limit temporary detention center confinement to juveniles who are awaiting sentencing, rather than those who have already been sentenced.
Youth Corrections officials believe judges should be restricted to using the temporary detention centers only for youths awaiting sentencing. Once the matter is adjudicated, the offenders should be sent to another program.
That way, they maintain, the centers can concentrate on their stated purpose, to hold ungovernables and other juveniles with problems until the court decides on a permanent solution.
Brown told the legislative committee that the average juvenile offender in detention has gone from 23 convictions to nearly 30 convictions in two years. Last year, he said, more than 53 percent of the offenders in detention had at least one life-endangering felony conviction on record.
Dituri said the audit attempted to address the issue of the proper use of detention by judges, but concluded the information system used by the juvenile courts is not sufficient to provide data for a good, in-depth study.
For example, the report said, there were 701 admissions to the Salt Lake Detention Center in 1987 for which contempt was listed as the offense.
"However, within this group it does not distinguish between youths who had only committed status offenses and those who had committed more severe offenses," it added.
Generally, the report noted, the detention center is not to be used for status offenders - youths whose crimes would not be crimes if they were adults, such as smoking, truancy etc.
The task force report recommended continuing exploration of crime-prevention programs at the schools and working with families and community groups, as well as diversion programs as an alternative to detention.
But John McNamara, administrator for the state juvenile court system, said he is disappointed with the auditor's study because it addressed only the issue of judicial sentencing and the problem with the information system, rather than long-range needs.
McNamara said courts have had a 70 percent increase in juvenile referrals since the beginning of the decade and a 100 percent increase in the number of convictions, while the staff to handle the caseload has increased only 20 percent.