Thursday, September 8, 2011

Juvenile Justice Delayed is Juvenile Justice Denied

On August 30, the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee met in Worland to consider, among other things, Wyoming’s juvenile justice system. The Honorable Gary Hartman from Governor Mead’s office gave a presentation designed to cite long term problems with the treatment of youth in the criminal justice system in Wyoming.

Reports and recommendations dating back to the 1960’s have cited, as a main deficiency, the lack of a unified court system in which all youth are processed. Each county in Wyoming has essentially created its own system. Most children in Wyoming are prosecuted in adult courts with none of the protections and due process provided to children in traditional juvenile courts. As a result, children are jailed at one of the highest rates in the nation and youth that need treatment or counseling are offered none.

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

Prior to the committee meeting, the Wyoming ACLU provided the joint judiciary committee with its report, Inequality in the Equality State: The Damaged Juvenile Justice and Detention System in Wyoming. 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 legislation presented by Judge Hartman addresses all these issues.

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

County Prosecutors Jeannie Stone, Brian Christensen and Bryon Skoric testified there is absolutely nothing wrong with the juvenile system, and that programs were all running very well with excellent results. Prosecutors also alleged that statistics cited by the ACLU in a juvenile justice report released this spring are wrong.

Rather than focusing on the real issues about reforming our juvenile justice system, the only questions posed by legislators to the Wyoming ACLU were limited to the veracity of statistics cited in the report. Of course, as we have stated, the data in the report represents crime statistics from the attorney general’s office and federal monitoring reports – which in turn are based on numbers provided by Wyoming counties.

The State of Wyoming has no agency that collects comprehensive data on issues and programs relating to juvenile justice. There is no collection of data on county programs or on the effectiveness of the programs. There is no evidence-based assessment of programs or systems. If there is a problem with the numbers, it is one of underreporting -- several counties refuse to provide information on their treatment of juveniles.

It is very disheartening to have Wyoming’s future – our children – reduced to little more than questions about incomplete statistics. The lack of a uniform juvenile justice system is a long term problem that affects the lives and futures of our children.

In 2010, in cooperation with the National Center for Youth Law, we released a report based on our own observations of the treatment of juveniles in several court rooms in Wyoming, A Call to Stop Child Prosecutions in Wyoming Adult Courts. 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.

As our legislators delay in effecting much-needed reforms in juvenile justice, justice to juveniles is denied.