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College courses show benefits for incarcerated youth in Utah

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Alex Gonzalez

(Utah News Connection) Utah is one of a few states where juveniles behind bars can earn college credit. 

Utah's Higher Education for Incarcerated Youth program lets young people study a wide range of subjects while in custody. It offers primarily virtual classes in collaboration with Utah Tech University, which provides the instructors for the courses. 

Brett Peterson, director of Utah's Division of Juvenile Justice and Youth Services, said focusing on rehabilitation and positive development is one of the most important things the state can be doing to help young offenders find a brighter future.

"Building that within our young people is the number one thing we can do to reduce recidivism," said Peterson, "to improve public safety - and to just change young lives that we're working with."

Since the inception of the program in 2021, Peterson said hundreds have enrolled and taken classes. The most recent figures show the latest class with 76 students throughout all the state's facilities, earning between them a total of 539 college credits. 

Peterson said the program is too new to determine if it's prompted anyone to continue their schooling or find jobs when they're released, but he's certain it's having a positive impact. 

According to one report, access to education in prison lowers the odds of repeat offenders by 43% and increases the likelihood of employment by 13 percent.


That study focused on adults, but Peterson said for young people - many of whom are first-generation high school graduates - taking the courses builds competency and fosters confidence.

"Almost without fail," said Peterson, "when I talk to young people, if they've been involved in these courses, it is the first thing they tell me about. They are like, 'Yeah, I'm taking a college class.' Or, 'I just got an A in a college class.'"

He added that a good education plays a key role in keeping kids out of the system in the first place.