Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Juvenile Justice Denied: One Year After "Inequality"

It’s been one year since we issued our comprehensive report on juvenile justice in Wyoming, Inequality in the Equality State: The Damaged Juvenile Justice and Detention System in Wyoming. In 2010, we issued A Call to Stop Child Prosecutions in Wyoming Adult Courts. These two documents were the last in a series of reporting that started in the 1960’s calling for changes in our bifurcated juvenile system. Most, up to 85%, of our juveniles are seen in adult court with none of the protections generally afforded to juveniles. These children are seen by judges in an adult court with few options other than fines or detention. As a result, Wyoming has historically had one of the highest detention rates in the nation. Even those counties that purport to have programs for youth still continue to have high detention rates.

The judges in these courts are not required to have any specialized training to deal with adolescents and some still clearly believe, despite all information to the contrary, that putting kids in jail is the best remedy for immature behavior. Of course, what we know from years of research is that detention is the worst option for juveniles and often exacerbates bad behavior. Children put in detention are more likely to drop out of school, continue involvement in the criminal justice system and have unsuccessful adult lives. In addition, because these youth are processed through adult courts, they often have an adult criminal record which can cause problems later in their life when applying for jobs or student loans. Yet we continue.

Forty years of reports have criticized the lack of a uniform juvenile justice system and court, which would provide privacy and protections that youth can generally expect elsewhere in the country. Every county in Wyoming does something different when handling troubled youth. Wealthier counties may have diversion programs for kids; poorer counties usually have jail, fines or both. There is no statewide data available in order to accurately track problematic or successful programs in the counties, and there never has been. County Attorneys often provide anecdotal stories about how well their programs are working, but concrete data to substantiate these claims does not exist. Wyoming’s taxpayers deserve to know if their money is being spent efficiently and effectively.

As a result of reviewing all the systemic problems, Inequality in the Equality State made five major recommendations for reform:

• Establish a unified juvenile or family court system with exclusive jurisdiction for all non-traffic juvenile matters and a judiciary professionally trained in juvenile law.

• Create a comprehensive juvenile justice system that applies equally and fairly to all Wyoming juveniles. This system should include the procedural framework for a central intake system that provides uniform procedural criteria for the decision-making steps in juvenile case processing and contain a consistent juvenile detention policy. This policy must be devoid of loopholes and include community-based programs.

• Create a comprehensive juvenile justice system based on restorative justice principles that promotes accountability and increased competency development for youthful offenders, without sacrificing community protection.

• Provide systematic data collection and analysis to guide decision making, assess program effectiveness, and provide assurances of equal treatment.

• Provide a dedicated funding source to ensure statewide accessibility and utilization.

The Joint Judiciary Committee added juvenile justice reform to its interim study issues in 2011, and several of the interim meetings have been dedicated to this issue. Unfortunately, no substantive changes have come from these meetings. County Attorneys are adamant that no changes be made, and lobbied both the Governor’s Office and the Judiciary Committee against making any changes. Few legislators on the committee were interested in real reforms, and some were openly hostile.

As a result, Governor Mead appointed a task force with no budget and all the authority and power that task forces usually have – none. The volunteer facilitator to the task force certainly should be thanked for her dedication and valuable time, but at this point we are not encouraged there will be any positive outcomes from the task force. Yet we continue.

The ACLU of Wyoming is committed to advocating for reforms to our outdated and ineffective juvenile justice system; Wyoming’s youth and our future are worth it.

Linda Burt
Executive Director
ACLU of Wyoming