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Utah governor signs massive juvenile justice reform bill

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- In March of 2017, Utah adopted sweeping juvenile justice reforms designed to reduce the number of youth in out-of-home placement by 47 percent over five years. With the passage of this legislation, Utah has shifted its focus from removing youth from their homes to expanding options for the courts and law enforcement, freeing up $70 million in state funds for reinvestment into early interventions and evidence-based programs for youth in the community.

Utah’s reform efforts began in June 2016, when the Utah Juvenile Justice Working Group was established and charged with developing a policy package to promote public safety, hold juvenile offenders accountable, control costs, and improve recidivism. This inter-branch Working Group included 19 stakeholders representing all areas of the juvenile justice system.

Over 10 months, the Working Group reviewed more than 500 slides of analysis on Utah’s juvenile justice data, heard from leading national juvenile justice researchers, and hosted 32 roundtable discussions to gather input from stakeholders across the state. The Crime and Justice Institute, in partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts, provided technical assistance to the Working Group. The Working Group submitted a report and its recommendations to the Governor, legislative leadership, and the Chief Justice in November 2016, and those recommendations served as the basis for an ambitious juvenile justice reform package known as H.B. 239.

H.B. 239 passed with strong support from the House (67-4) and the Senate (24-0) and was signed into law by Governor Gary Herbert on March 23, 2017. H.B. 239 aligns Utah’s juvenile justice system with evidence-based practices designed to reduce recidivism while reserving state resources for youth who pose the highest risk to public safety.

H.B. 239:

• Requires pre-court diversion for misdemeanors, status offenses, and minor infractions if the youth has limited prior history;

• Tailors eligibility for custody in the juvenile justice system for those youth who pose the highest risk to public safety;

• Eliminates the option to place youth in the custody of a child welfare agency for delinquency and status offenses without a finding of abuse, neglect, or dependency.

• Sets a presumptive length for the juvenile justice system’s out-of-home placement and probation terms with exceptions for serious offenses and youth completing essential treatment;

• Sets a maximum on court-ordered financial obligations; and

• Expands investment in evidence-based, in-home community services.

H.B. 239 sets a strong precedent for reform and makes Utah a national leader in comprehensive juvenile justice reform.