Reform advocates last week pushed the Wyoming Legislature to reduce the county-by-county inconsistencies, and fill the outcome-tracking holes that have long plagued the state’s juvenile justice system.
Jurisdictions currently vary widely in how they work with troubled kids, and there is little data that allows policy makers to measure whether resources are being used to deliver effective programming.
Prior reform efforts before the Legislature — there have been several — resulted in piecemeal changes. Reform advocates, calling for more wholesale changes, say the steps needed to meaningfully improve public safety and outcomes for kids have yet to come.
Lack of uniformity has for decades been identified as a major contributor to problems in Wyoming’s juvenile justice system.
University of Wyoming Law Professor John Burman, in a 2004 article, described Wyoming’s juvenile justice system as “not really a system at all. It is a maze, which is virtually impossible to navigate.”
Burman died in 2019, but echoes of that description were present June 14 as members of the Joint Judiciary Committee devoted nearly an entire day to the topic of juvenile justice only to conclude they’d need more information before drafting legislation.
Co-chairman Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) noted that the amount of time the committee devoted to juvenile justice was atypical.
“It’s not our typical style of doing an interim meeting where we do an hour on a topic that’s very narrowly tailored, very discreet, and we do a bill draft,” Nethercott told the committee. “This is different.”
Different because, “what we have learned today is a tragic lack of any information for how our juvenile justice system operates, except for local commentary that everything is just fine,” Nethercott said. “That’s really what we’re hearing. So it’s a little bit difficult for us to know how to take the appropriate action items.”
The big takeaway from those hours of discussion was a need to better understand, as Nethercott put it, “why there’s those data gaps, and how do we solve them?”
A spectrum of responses
Donna Sheen, executive director for the Wyoming Children’s Law Center, told the committee that juvenile justice reform is something she started working on back in 2001. Sheen said the lack of uniformity is central to why data is hard to wrangle.
“I just ask for you to keep in mind that jurisdiction is part of that conundrum,” said Sheen. “Data can be hard to get when you have more courts involved.” In most states, one court has jurisdiction over all juveniles, with the exception of juveniles tried in adult courts for serious felonies. But as Sheen told the committee, in Wyoming young people are more likely to end up in municipal, circuit and district courts — which are designed for adults — than they are to land in juvenile courts.
In 2009 the Legislature put in statute a program called single point of entry. That codified prosecutorial discretion, making the prosecuting attorney in each county the gatekeeper for all juvenile citations. “Prosecutors get to choose which court, or no court, or diversion,” Sheen said. Yet those prosecutors are not required to track where they funnel those cases or the outcomes, making it difficult to grasp what’s working and what’s not from community to community.
“The issue is … that different counties in Wyoming do it very differently,” Sheen said. “You will see incredible differences in terms of counties that take a lot of children out of the home and place them in confined into residential settings like the Boys School, Girls School, and then other counties that do a magnificent job keeping all of their children within the community, finding ways to serve them [locally].”
The Council of State Governments used the term “justice by geography” to describe those disparities — where the same behavior can lead to a spectrum of responses from punitive to rehabilitative. The non-profit, which assisted the Legislature with criminal justice reform, is once again offering its services to help Wyoming improve the juvenile system. CSG suggested reform should focus on strengthening public safety and communities, while reducing recidivism and outcomes for youth.
Across the nation the use of incarceration for kids has been on the decline, Nina Salomon with CSG told the committee, because research indicates removing kids from their homes and communities leads to higher recidivism rates.
“So many states have reduced their use of incarceration to adhere to best practices,” Salomon said. In many states that is executed through an increase in the use of diversion programs. Kids stay out of the courts and instead go through programs that provide a combination of support and accountability.
That’s happening in some communities in Wyoming, but not consistently. While Wyoming’s juvenile incarceration rates have declined, the state’s rate is still over twice the national average. Idaho’s rate per capita is 164 compared to 239 in Wyoming, for example.
Salomon suggested that Wyoming might want to focus on matching kids to appropriate services in every community. “Over-supervising low-risk kids actually gets poorer outcomes for those youth. They get more entrenched in the juvenile justice system. So diverting those low-risk youth is the best supervision option for those young people,” she said.
Incarceration should be reserved for high-risk kids, Salomon added.
There was committee interest in the difference between diversion programs and juvenile probation, which involves the courts and a higher level of supervision.
A Department of Family Services report prepared for the committee explained that “the majority of youth are ordered to [the Wyoming Boys and Girls Schools] based upon continual violations of the youth’s probation terms.” During her presentation to the committee, DFS Director Korin Schmidt added that 60% of residents currently at the Girls School are there for probation violations.
Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) questioned why that number is so high.
“I think that is a conversation that we can look into,” said Schmidt. “We don’t readily have that data, but we could dig a bit more into it.”
The committee also expressed interest in learning more about the prevalence of mental health issues among justice-involved youth, and whether inadequate mental health care is a factor in their behavior.
Data is there but it’s hard to access
In some cases data is not being collected, and in other cases it’s there but difficult to access and analyze. The DFS and the Wyoming Supreme Court told the committee that they have some of the data being requested. Both agencies are in the process of transitioning to more modern data systems, which could help in the future.
Narina Nuñez, who serves on the State Advisory Council for Juvenile Justice, told the committee data on juvenile justice outcomes has been a focus of the council going back to 1997. Funding and county participation have made tracking outcomes challenging, she said; only 14 of 23 counties have been willing to share data with the council.
Nuñez said that recent budget cuts will likely hurt participation even more. On July 1, state funding for Wyoming’s Community Juvenile Services Boards is set to run out. The boards are made up of local health, education and justice system officials along with mental health and substance abuse treatment professionals and youth advocates who spend state money on programs to prevent juvenile delinquency.
Committee Co-chairman Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne) suggested that the legislature could mandate that all counties participate. Similar proposals over the last 40 years have met stiff opposition from county attorneys who felt data-reporting requirements infringed on local control.
John Worrall, president of Wyoming County & Prosecuting Attorneys Association, told the committee he agrees with the idea that there could be more consistency among counties, but he doesn’t see a need for statewide reform. “I just don’t see a major problem,” he said.
He cautioned the committee about reports indicating that Wyoming has one of the highest juvenile incarceration rates in the nation. According to data from the US Department of Justice, Wyoming had the highest rate in 2017 and the third-highest in 2019.
He was not the only one who expressed concern about that statistic, which he said could be skewed by nuances in terms like incarceration versus residential placement.
Getting a firmer grip on where kids end up when they are removed from their homes for juvenile offenses was just one piece of the puzzle. Moving forward, the committee requested information about how to access more data. Members are interested in what other states have done to address disparities from county to county. The committee also wants to know about how juvenile charges impact access to employment.
One voice missing from the committee’s conversation about juvenile justice this time around was schools. In a follow up interview, Sheen said school discipline is one way kids are funneled into the justice system. This is known as the school to prison pipeline.
“Once you’ve suspended or expelled a kid, you’re probably not going to be very successful in getting them back,” Sheen said. “Once you’ve been ostracized by a community, you don’t feel very welcome to return.” And, Sheen said, “What’s the kid doing all day when they feel ostracized from school and don’t want to go anymore? They usually find not great things to do.”
There is an opportunity for collaboration between the Joint Judiciary and Joint Education committees, Sheen said. Education is looking at minority and at-risk students’ experiences with school, as well as truancy and absenteeism laws and how they’re being deployed across the state.
Sheen acknowledged the committee already started to draw connections between juvenile justice and mental health needs. She encouraged them to continue their inquiry, and suggested the committee could take it one step further and gather data on suicide rates among justice-system involved youth.
The Joint Judiciary Committee will meet again at the end of August in Powell.