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Utah's rate of recidivism return to incarceration for juvenile offenders is a staggering 53.1 percent, costing taxpayers millions while falling short of the goal to reshape the lives of many troubled youths.
Utah's recidivism rate is significantly higher than those of Colorado, Idaho and Arizona, which are 28.7 percent, 30.4 percent and 33.4 percent, respectively, according to a Utah Legislative Auditor General's review of the Department of Human Services (DHS) released Tuesday.
Juvenile Justice Services is within DHS and oversees offenders younger than 18. The audit states that youth-offender recidivism cost the state $16.8 million in 2013.
In 2013, Juvenile Justice Services managed 901 young offenders at a total cost of $91 million.
"Bringing Utah in line with peer state operations could potentially decrease annual costs by $6 million," the report said, "by reducing recidivism through improved program monitoring and targeting high-risk youth offenders."
Further, it said: "Juvenile Justice Services could realize additional savings or improved outcomes through greater program oversight. Utilizing data to focus on the highest-risk youth can allocate resources efficiently and decrease recidivism."
The majority of youths in Juvenile Justice Services are "court-determined delinquents" who have been ordered by a judge to be held in detention centers.
Alternative sentences include fines, restitution and probation.
The challenge of turning around troubled youths is not made easier by a decrease of $9 million in funding since 2010, while the percentage of "high-risk" youths in the system has jumped from 64 percent to 70 percent, said Susan Burke, director of Juvenile Justice Services.
The large number of high-risk youths sets the stage for high recidivism rates, she noted.
"The mission of Juvenile Justice is to turn young lives around," she said. "We are committed to meeting the challenge of recidivism."
Burke added that she supports the audit's six recommendations regarding the division.
Among those are that the division review all of its programming to determine if it provides the necessary services to meet the needs of youth offenders. In addition, auditors recommend comprehensive outcome measurements to guide future programming.
The audit was called for in legislation sponsored by Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, that seeks to look at various state departments on a regular basis.
"This is not to single out any one department," he said Monday. "This is just prudent management for all [state] core operations."
Regular audits "should be a positive thing," he said. "It rewards excellence and identifies savings."
He declined to address specific findings in the audit, saying he had not read the report by Monday.