Utah weighs college courses for incarcerated youth

Photo by David Charlow via Flickr

Youth incarcerated will have access to college courses, as well as instructors, under a bill introduced to the Utah legislature this month

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

“We need to invest in education awareness. This program will offer the same simultaneous registration opportunities to incarcerated youth as to their peers who are not incarcerated.

“That way they can prepare for their release and find a job for themselves. “


State of Utah Representative Lowry Snow

Under the bill, incarcerated youth can choose a variety of diplomas or technical certificates to pursue.

The bill appeared to have bipartisan support.

Representative Elizabeth Weight, a Democrat from Salt Lake City, said a similar program that encouraged young people to graduate from high school had led to a “100% graduation rate.”

“Some young people are so short of credits that they give up (and) give up,” she said.

“When they give up, they’re much more likely to get involved in crime. “

Utah Juvenile Justice Division Services reported last month a 46 percent reduction in juveniles in custody statewide; and a 19 percent increase in early intervention.

Additionally, the report says $ 9 million was reinvested in front-end services – the result of legislation sponsored by Snow and Sen. Todd Weiler and enacted in 2018.

“We want to reinvest this money in services for families and children,” Snow said. “At the same time, we also need to focus on the most serious offenders. We need to make sure the public is safe while providing services, like education, to these young people. “

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

Weight added that the program would encourage both job prospects and opportunities for further education, if young people choose to participate.

“I am so excited to see this bill,” Weight said. “It offers invaluable monetary value. A program like this adds value to your life.

Of course, a dollar amount can be attributed to incarceration. During the presentation, Snow’s team said it currently costs $ 200,000 per year to keep a youngster in a safe environment.

“Pardon the pun, but this program should benefit from a captive audience,” Snow told the committee.

“These young people can get out of the system with their diplomas. They can also come out of the system with a certificate, associate’s degree, or even a bachelor’s degree.

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

“The way we deal with young people determines how they develop,” Snow said. “The data shows that the way we treat them in schools impacts them as adults. When mistreated, they can develop social problems.

Brett M. Peterson, director of the Utah division of juvenile justice services, said incarcerated youth almost always fall into two groups: those trapped in the cycle of intergenerational poverty and those who have experienced a kind of trauma.

“This bill is really about getting to the heart of intergenerational poverty,” said Peterson. “I read a study that said that young people whose parents have higher education are more likely to pursue higher education themselves.

“Then for every dollar we invest in programs like this, we save five dollars on the back end. “

Studies show that incarcerated youth are much more likely to commit new crimes upon release. But, Snow said, recidivism rates are falling as incarcerated youth continue their education.

“The reason I’m passionate about juvenile justice reform,” Snow said, “is because I’m trying to reach the source. When we help these young people now, we are helping everyone in the future.

HB-279 received a unanimous favorable recommendation and is now on the schedule for a third reading in the House of the 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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