Whither, Wyoming?

More than 320 people turned out last week for the Wyoming Children’s Justice Conference, which was hosted by the Wyoming Supreme Court’s Children’s Justice Project and Wyoming Guardians Ad Litem program (GAL).

“We had to turn away 40 people,” said Stacy Obrecht, attorney director of GAL. Typically the conference is by invitation, but this year it was open for anyone. 

It was the first time, Obrecht said, that “everyone came to the same table [to] talk about ways to collaborate and coordinate.”

Why is this significant? Because it might be the first step toward Wyoming, which has perhaps the least cogent juvenile justice system in America, joining the rest of the nation when it comes to juvenile justice.

Wyoming is the only state that does not receive OJJDP state formula. It does not receive the money, and consequently does not have to comply with the four core requirements of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA): deinstitutionalization of status offenders, sight and sound separation of juveniles from adults in jail, removal of juveniles from adult jails and lockups, and reduction of disproportionate minority contact.

Non-participation doesn’t necessarily mean the Equality State is flagrantly defying those requirements; after all, there are plenty of participating states with lots of problems. But according to Wyoming advocates, the state’s juvenile justice system is an uneven and unjust system by any measure.

Actually, that’s not quite true;to be bad by any measure you would have to entail at least some data. Only in the past two years have serious efforts at information gathering gotten under way. The Wyoming County Commissioners Association’s Juvenile Justice Project (JJP), led by Coordinator Beth Evans, has produced 2006 and 2007 reports about the state’s performance on the four JJDPA requirements.

You can tell from the notations in the report, it was not fun trying to piece it together.  One table on non-violent offenders in Casper’s Regional Juvenile Detention Center (RJDC) – by far the largest of Wyoming’s facilities – was the product of handwritten data from the center,  cross-checked against handwritten records from the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office.

A quick overview of  Wyoming JJ:

*There is no unified juvenile court system, and thus no way to determine (uniformly) juvenile court jurisdiction over youth who are arrested.

*Wyoming’s juvenile detention rate is actually significantly lower than the national average: 48 per 100,000 as opposed to 84 per 100,000, according to federal data. But the total detained and committed figure, in adult or juvenile facilities combined, is 334 per 100,000, close to triple the national rate of 125.

*RJDC is teeming with youths who have been detained for status offenses or violations of court orders. Based on 2007 approximations, there were 102 youths detained for “minor in possession” of alcohol or tobacco  charges(MIP), and 228 for probation violations or bench warrants.

*Some counties used adult jails to house youths for similar offenses. There were approximately 36 youths jailed for running away or leaving a state-ordered placement, 54 jailings on MIP charges and -this is the craziest – 82 straight-up child welfare cases resulting in placement in jail. 

*About 80 percent of all cases involving juveniles are handled in adult court.

There appears to be some momentum building in the state on JJ reform. The state is going to go after some stimulus money to build better secure facilities. Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) hired a policy advisor, retired state judge Gary Hartman, specifically to look at juvenile justice issues.

In some ways, the lockup problems seem fixable. Most of the juveniles held in adult jails are in one jurisdiction, Campbell County, so it isn’t as if the entire state has a predilection for that option. Building smaller facilities and closing RJDC – which was converted to a JJ facility after being condemned as an adult prison – might make a huge difference there.

But ultimately, the authors of the JJP report concluded, the state needs to develop a uniform approach to determine which juveniles appropriately can be detained. There is some speculation by Wyoming JJ advocates that some in the state have a strong desire to keep status offender lockup as an option, particularly in cases involving  runaways and minors in possession.

The state instituted a valid court order for the first time last summer, and judges are not supposed to detain status offenders now unless they have violated such an order. So for example, the judge could not detain a youth for running away from a child welfare placement; but he could issue a valid court order instructing the youth not to do so again. And if it happened, he could detain the youth.

But the bill reauthorizing JJDPA, which currently is in the hopper at the Senate Judiciary Committee, has a clause that would require all participating states to phase out valid court orders over a three-year period, leaving judges zero opportunities to detain status offenders. So if Wyoming were to join the other 49 states, it eventually would have to eliminate completely the detainment of status offenders.

The other issue is cost. By not participating in JJDPA, the state government costs itself a $600,000 formula grant each year, the base amount for smaller states.

But that doesn’t mean Wyoming loses the money. Each year, $30,000 of the $600,000 goes to the Wyoming Department of Family Services to support the state advisory group. And the other $570,000 is granted out to a nonprofit that will “provide services to reduce violations of the JJDP Act,” according to the 2009 solicitation put out by OJJDP. The current grantee is Volunteers of America, which is using it to develop some alternatives to incarceration.

Participating in JJDPA will mean some up-front costs for Wyoming including building better facilities and funding more alternatives to those facilities. It will certainly have to spend more on data collection and analysis. And despite the fact that the state has a surplus from oil and gas revenue, budgets have been trimmed; Obrecht said the guardian ad litem program, part of the public defender’s office, was cut back from $4.2 million to $3.2 million.

So is moving that $600,000 into the state’s JJ account worth the effort? Probably not. Other states have recently chafed at the level of work required to comply with JJDPA, as Youth Today‘s Publisher Bill Treanor reported in 2007.

If the decision to participate in JJDPA is made, it will be about principles, not profit.

One additional motivation: lawsuits. Pat Arthur, senior attorney with the National Center for Youth Law is working with advocates and the Freudenthal administration on reform. In January, she wrote a letter calling for the closure of RJDC. Arthur and her colleagues at the center are no strangers to the courtroom, so litigation is possible if Wyoming isn’t genuine about moving forward at all.



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