Utah Weighs College Courses for Incarcerated Youth

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Photo by David Charlow via Flickr

Incarcerated youth will have access to university courses, as well as instructors, under a bill presented to the Utah legislature this month

“Education is the antidote to recidivism,” said Utah State Rep. Lowry Snow, a Republican, who presented HB-279 to the House Education Committee in Salt Lake City.

“We’ve got to invest in education outreach. This program will provide the same opportunities for concurrent enrollment to incarcerated youth as it does to their peers who are not incarcerated.

“This way, they can prepare for their release and get jobs for themselves.”

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Utah State Rep. Lowry Snow

Under the bill, incarcerated young people may choose a variety of degrees or technical certificates to pursue.

The bill appeared to have bipartisan support.

Rep. Elizabeth Weight, a Democrat from Salt Lake City, said a similar program that encouraged young people to complete a high school degree led to a “100 percent graduation rate.”

“Some young people are missing so many credits, they just give up (and) drop out,” she said.

“When they drop out, they’re much more likely to get involved in crime.”

The Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services reported last month a 46 percent reduction in youth locked in detention statewide, and a 19 percent increase in early intervention.

Additionally, the report stated that $9 million was reinvested into front-end services – the result of legislation sponsored by Snow and Sen. Todd Weiler and signed into law in 2018.

“We want to reinvest that money into services for families and children,” Snow said. “At the same time, we must also concentrate on more serious offenders. We need to make sure the public is safe, while also getting services, like education, to those young people.”

Utah needs to do more to ensure that, when released, formerly incarcerated youth have the skills they need to earn a living and contribute to their communities, Snow said.

Weight added that the program would encourage both employment prospects as well as opportunities to further education, should young people choose to participate.

“I’m so excited to see this bill,” Weight said. “It provides an inestimable dollar value. A program like this one adds value to your life.”

Of course, a dollar amount can be assigned to incarceration. During the presentation, Snow’s team said that it currently costs $200,000 per year to keep a young person in secure care.

“Forgive the pun, but this program stands to benefit from a captive audience,” Snow said to the committee.

“These youth may come out of the system with their diplomas. They may also come out of the system with a certificate, an associate’s degree, or even a bachelor’s.”

Snow said that too often the adult population receives attention, while youth are forgotten.

“The way we handle young people determines how they develop,” Snow said. “Data shows that the way we deal with them in schools has an impact on them as adults. When mistreated, they may develop social problems.”

Brett M. Peterson, Director of the Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services, said that incarcerated youth are almost always part of two groups: Those who are trapped in the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and those who’ve suffered some kind of trauma.

“This bill is meant to really strike at the heart of intergenerational poverty,” Peterson said. “I read a study that said that youth whose parents participated in higher education are more likely to participate in higher education themselves.

“Then, for every dollar we invest into programs like this one, we save five dollars on back-end.”

Studies show that young people who are incarcerated are many times more likely to commit new crimes once released. But, Snow said, recidivism rates decrease as incarcerated youth further their education.

“The reason I’m passionate about juvenile justice reform,” Snow said, “is that I’m trying to get to the headwater. When we help these young people now, we’re doing everybody a favor in the future.”

HB-279 received a unanimous favorable recommendation, and is now on the calendar for a third reading in the House of Bills.

David Dudley is a John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow, and a writer for St. George News in southern Utah. He welcomes comments from readers.

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