Friday, May 13, 2011

Update: Juvenile Justice Reform

On April 21 the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee met in Worland at the Community Center Complex. One of the interim issues for the committee is juvenile justice. The Honorable Gary Hartman from Governor Mead’s office gave a power point presentation designed to site the long-term problems with the treatment of youth in the criminal justice system in Wyoming. The presentation outlined the history of reports and recommendations starting in the 1960’s and the lack of response to those recommendations. One of the main deficiencies in the system has been the lack of a unified court system in which all youth would be processed. Due to the poorly written statutory foundation, each county in Wyoming has created its own system. Most children in Wyoming are processed in adult courts with none of the protections and due process allowed children in traditional juvenile courts. Some courts allow little or no due process, judges are not trained or knowledgeable in juvenile development or issues; children are jailed at one of the highest rates in the nation and youth that need treatment or counseling are offered none. These criticisms of the Wyoming system have been heard for over 40 years, and Wyoming legislators have done little beyond minor tinkering to fix the problems.

At the conclusion of the presentation Judge Hartman presented the committee with draft statutes that would bring about the much needed changes in the juvenile system. Judge Hartman, Donna Sheen, a local children’s attorney and advocate, as well as Dr. Beth Evans, Chair of the State Advisory Committee, then answered a number of questions from the committee.

Next a group of Wyoming judges including the Honorable Norman Young, John Fenn and Randal Arp made a short presentation, allowing that there probably should be some changes and that judges would do whatever the legislators directed them to do.

County Prosecutors Jeannie Stone, Brian Christensen and Bryon Skoric then testified there was absolutely nothing wrong with the system that programs were all running very well with excellent results. The prosecutors also said the numbers used in our report were wrong.

The Wyoming ACLU provided the joint judiciary committee with copies of the newly released ACLU report, "Inequality in the Equality State: The Damaged Juvenile Justice and Detention System in Wyoming," prior to the meeting. The report is a comprehensive report that includes the following policy recommendations for the Wyoming legislature:

To enact a juvenile code that:

1. Establishes a unified juvenile or family court system with exclusive jurisdiction for all non-traffic juvenile matters and a judiciary professionally trained in juvenile law.
2. Creates a comprehensive juvenile justice system that applies equally and fairly to all Wyoming juveniles. This system should include the procedural framework for a central juvenile case processing and obtain a consistent juvenile detention policy. This policy must be devoid of loopholes and include community based programs.
3. Creates a comprehensive juvenile justice system based on restorative justice principles that promote accountability and increased competency development for youthful offenders, without sacrificing community protection.
4. Provides systematic data collecting and analysis to guide decision making, assess program effectiveness, and provide assurances of equal treatment.
5. Is funded through a dedicated funding source to ensure its statewide accessibility and utilization.

The draft code presented by Judge Hartman would have addressed all these issues. Unfortunately, the only questions I was asked were about the numbers in our report and the veracity of those numbers. Kermit Brown, Co-Chair of the Committee has also questioned the numbers in our report in the press.

It’s very frustrating to have such an overwhelming long-term problem effecting the lives and futures of our children and have the committee focus on the supposed “problems” with the numbers. The numbers used in our report are the only professionally collected verifiable statistics available on juvenile issues in the state. The State of Wyoming has no single agency that collects data on juvenile justice. There is no collection of data on county programs and the effectiveness of the programs, no assessment on programs or systems. The data in our report represents federal monitoring reports and crime statistics reports from the attorney general’s office. Those numbers are collected from the counties themselves. The only issue with the numbers that is possible is the issue of underreporting as several counties refuse to provide information on their treatment of juveniles.

In June 2010, the Wyoming Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union along with the National Center for Youth Law released a report based on observations of the treatment of juveniles in several court rooms in Wyoming, "A Call to Stop Child Prosecutions in Wyoming Adult Court." That report concluded:

“The state of Wyoming stands at the threshold of opportunity. It can revise its juvenile code to create a model system of youth justice, or it can continue down the time-worn path it has been on for decades, meting out adult convictions and costly sentences to children who really just need a stronger guiding hand. The authors, and many others in the state working with children in trouble, urge the public to demand a better system of justice for Wyoming’s children. We hope public officials will finally exercise the political will to truly reform the way it’s always been.”

Once again, this seems like an impossible dream. We remain hopeful that the Joint Judiciary Committee will provide leadership in juvenile justice reform during the interim session.

Linda Burt,
Executive Director