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Incarcerated youth in Utah now getting college opportunity

Posted at 6:01 PM, May 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-04 22:21:25-04

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill passed by the Utah State Legislature this year is allowing incarcerated youth to take college classes through Dixie State University.

This was just one of several bills passed this legislative session as part of the state’s juvenile justice reform effort.

Brett Peterson, the Director for the Division of Juvenile Justice Services in Utah, says "this is a great opportunity for the youth and will help with lowering recidivism."

“As you have an aging population and they are going to go back into the community, we have to think about vocational job skills and higher education,” said Peterson.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, providing access to education in prisons helps decrease the odds of recidivism by 43 percent.

READ: Data shows Utah’s juvenile justice reform is working

The idea of offering college classes to incarcerated youth was brought to the Director of Concurrent Enrollment for Dixie State University, Kevin Simmons, by a colleague.

“He came to me and asked, as the concurrent enrollment director, and asked, can we make this possible, how do we build this. And I said there are at least five things that are going to make this impossible,” said Simmons.

Then the pandemic hit and Dixie State spent a lot of money investing in technological advances. All the sudden, Simmons said, these hurdles were no longer there.

“I called him a few months later and said, remember those five things, all gone,” he said.

DSU leaders worked with state leaders and Rep. V. Lowry Snow to make it happen.

This is an important step, helping set incarcerated youth up for success, Peterson said.

“Our population is getting a little older and so we have to continue to innovate and think about how do we best prepare them for re-entry,” Peterson said.

WATCH: STEMCAP Program helps ignite incarcerated youths’ interest in education

There are some hurtles, Simmons admitted, as there is no ‘blueprint’ for this program and DSU is starting this from the ground up. Some classes are beginning for the summer session.

“The other difficulty that we have discovered as we have visited the facilities is security. You know, you don’t just go into a secure facility and open up the internet to the world,” Simmons said.

This is an opportunity many youths, like the one who spoke anonymously with FOX 13 News, never imagined would be possible. The name of the incarcerated youth will not be disclosed for privacy reasons.

“The next thing I thought was where I was going to sleep that night, what I was going to eat, so never thought about a further education, never thought about opportunities I could take,” he said.

This will open opportunities this youth said he never even imaged of. It could help him fulfill a dream of getting a steady income and buying a house for himself and his brother.

“When I completed high school, which I never thought was possible, they said you can get a job now because you have a high school diploma. But, having a college education will better my variety of jobs I can get,” he said.

WATCH: SLC commission issues recommendations on school-to-prison pipeline, youth racial equity

A study by the National Center for Education Statistics reports people are more likely to attend college if their parents did. With this in mind, this type of program will likely be beneficial in many ways, Peterson said.

“It is one of those steps we can take that will not only help that individual, but we believe generations,” he said.

Juvenile Justice Reform has proven to be successful in Utah with data backing up the claim. Utah has seen a 46-percent reduction of low-risk youth ending up in locked detention centers, as well as a 40 percent decrease in assaults in secure care and more. More than $9 million have been reinvested into front-end services to assist youth.

While an emphasis and success has come in terms of front-end services to help prevent youth from ending up in a secure facility, as well as treatment inside the facilities during the incarcerated youth’s time incarcerated, there is still work to be done as the youth re-enter society, Peterson said. One of the challenges is to help make sure the youths don’t end up back in the system.

“Making sure they have mentors, making sure they are meaningful jobs, making sure they have educational opportunities,” he said.

CLICK HERE for more information on youth services in Utah.