The Juvenile Justice Task Force should rethink its current support of a proposal for handling juvenile criminals - one that falls far short of providing the early treatment and incarceration options needed to deal with the frightening rise in youth crime.
The task force and other groups that have studied sentencing guidelines for teenage offenders are divided primarily over the issue of cost. Most agree a plan called "presumptive standards" would do a better job of treating juveniles early in their criminal careers, but some say it is too expensive. It would require the construction of more secure facilities to house offenders, the hiring of more probation officers and an increase in other community placement options.People worried about this cost favor a cheaper plan called "matrix." Unfortunately, this plan too often fails to halt the progress of a juvenile offender from minor to more serious crimes.
The matrix resembles the sentencing guidelines used in the adult system. It allows the judge, prosecutors and defense counsel to look at the seriousness of the crime but is not as likely to result in early intervention for youthful offenders. It is cheaper because it often results in only fines or probation for offenders.
The task force has approved the matrix system by a 6-4 vote. But many of its supporters cited cost, not effectiveness. If the task force sends a recommendation to lawmakers in the Judiciary Interim Committee that many feel is not the best option, but merely the cheapest, it is doing a disservice to Utahns.
When the group meets for a final vote, it should reconsider the long-term effect of its decision.
The task force was formed because legislators hoped it could come up with a less expensive but effective alternative to presumptive standards. The matrix fulfills only half of that wish. It is less costly but does not solve the problem of teenagers committing many crimes with no intervention or treatment by the juvenile justice system.
If state leaders are serious about preventing crime, not merely dealing with its effects, they must do what is right, not what is less expensive.
The eventual costs of dealing with criminals who have spent their youths as apprentices for a career in crime is much higher than the $17 million to $40 million pricetag estimated for the more effective juvenile sentencing guidelines. Those costs must be measured in both money and in the suffering of victims.
The Juvenile Justice Subcommittee of the state Sentencing Commission wisely has voted to support the presumptive standards because they force judges to move a chronic offender into the system faster.
Currently teens must acquire a ridiculous number of criminal offenses, sometimes between 60 and 100, before they encounter serious consequences. The more expensive sentencing scheme offers judges more options, including creating a whole new series of programs more strict than probation but not as costly or restrictive as community placement.
The task force should tell legislators the hard truth: Treating juveniles early to prevent more crime later on is expensive. But it's also the best and most far-sighted way to deal with the rise in juvenile crime. Pay now or pay more later.