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Job's not done, juvenile-crime panel says

For two years, they've discussed nearly every aspect of juvenile crime and the juvenile justice system.

When the Juvenile Justice Task Force was created by the legislature in 1996, only one thing was clear: The juvenile system was in a state of crisis.Utah hadn't kept up with the growth or the violence of juvenile delinquents. The public had lost confidence in the system, although some said it was one of the best in the country.

Not enough beds of any kind left agencies that had the same ultimate goal - helping children - bickering amongst themselves for every dollar. Finger-pointing and fighting reigned.

Rather than fix what was brought to them one item at a time, legislators decided to coordinate an overhaul. Legislators, a juvenile court judge, child welfare officials, a researcher and Youth Corrections officials, among others, sat around a table each month for two years.

First they educated themselves. Then they began to take testimony about what needed fixing and how it could be done. Cost wasn't discussed until the end, and while it affected some of the decisions, everyone agreed, it was just a mixture of reality and the best solutions they could find.

No one got everything he wanted. But everyone said it was one of the best concerted efforts the state has made to deal with young criminals.

Two years, they now say, was not enough.

Because there is so much left to do, one of the task force's co-chairmen, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, is sponsoring a bill that would keep the group intact for another year.

He believes the system still needs to be re-worked and that those running Youth Corrections, the Division of Child and Family Services and the juvenile court system, are best equipped to come up with a new way of dealing with troubled youngsters.

The task force renewal bill has broad support, but faces a process at the end of the legislative session that will prioritize task force bills. Usually, only the top three are funded.

It would cost another $22,500 for another year of task force work, which Hillyard believes to be "fairly critical."

"But I won't live or die by it (the renewal)," he said. "I still intend as a legislator to keep the pressure on the people in charge . . . The most important thing to do was to bring all the players together, and we did that."

After its first year of research and debate, the task force was responsible for reviving and helping pass juvenile sentencing guidelines. They get help to youngsters causing problems much earlier in their "criminal careers." The hope was to solve problems before they became mammoth and hopefully keep teens from spending all of their youth behind bars.

This year, the task force recommended a number of things, including a bill allowing judges to sentence children to the Department of Human Services so a child has access to everything the department has to offer, not just an individual division, such as Youth Corrections or Child and Family Services.

But the issue that has always plagued the innovative ideas spawned in the task force meetings is money.

The task force recommended three items. They are: $1.9 million for out-of-state placements for Youth Corrections teens rather than building any new beds this year; $390,000 for training Youth Corrections workers (a compromise to certifying many of them as correctional officers); and another $1.4 million for community alternatives, which is where 60 percent of Youth Corrections children are placed.

All three items made a "wish list" of the subcommittee charged with funding Youth Corrections. Hillyard believes the Legislature will come up with at least some of that money.

But even if it doesn't, task force members believe they need another year of consideration before they can rest.

"Nobody likes to have his recommendations ignored," said 3rd District Juvenile Court Judge Andrew Valdez, a task force member. "Those (out of state) beds were critical. But I think we still have work to do . . . The task force is effective."

Some who work with youngsters in the system but didn't sit on the task force, believe it could have been more effective.

Roz McGee, executive director of Utah Children, said the task force didn't accomplish some things that must be addressed by the state. Among those: funding for youth-in-custody (school services for those children in lock-up); academic credit for schoolwork performed in secure confinement; youths suspended or expelled from school; truancy legislation; and a report on how the sentencing guidelines are working.

That unfinished business is exactly the reason the task force needs to be renewed, according to another onlooker.

"I think they're far from finished," said Michelle Arciaga, community coordinator for the Salt Lake Area Gang Project. "They've just sat on the task force long enough that now they understand what changes need to be made . . . We still don't deal with our serious offenders appropriately."

She blames some of the breakdown on a lack of leadership from the executive branch. There is too much focus, she said, "on what the costs are, not what's the right thing to do."

"One of the primary responsibilities of government is to protect the citizens that are law-abiding," she said. "It's discouraging to see government that's not willing to do that."