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Wyo Opinions: How to properly tackle juvenile justice in Wyoming

Changes at the US Postal Service hit rural America (Cartoon by Greg Kearney)

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Op-Ed on Structured Decision Process

BY: Donna Sheen, Director of the Wyoming Children’s Law Center

October is Youth Justice Action Month.  We want to thank our Wyoming Legislature for tackling our broken juvenile justice system and for moving forward with two draft bills to establish juvenile justice data collection requirements and curb Wyoming’s notoriously high youth confinement rates.  The Joint Interim Committee voted to move a bill draft forward that will require a structured decision process when confining youth.  What is a structured decision-making process?  In a nutshell, this would establish clearly defined and consistently applied criteria across the State to screen and assess youth, to determine the appropriate interventions and ensure that confinements align with actual public safety risks.  Structured decision processes help communities identify common values and appropriate interventions, limit bias and increase objectivity.  

We don’t want the zip code where a child lives, their race and ethnicity, or their gender to determine their life outcomes. Even with incomplete data collection, we know there are disparities in these areas that can be addressed using an objective process.  In 2019, Sweetwater County had the highest DFS delinquency placement rate in the State with 1.19% of youth receiving a delinquency confinement annually as compared to Lincoln County’s placement rate of .1%; ten times lower than Sweetwater.  These rates do not count youths charged in adult courts, which we know results in even more confinements.  There is also a correlation between counties with juvenile detention centers and higher confinement rates; possibly in part because the costs of running a half empty-facility are staggering.  When kids fill those beds, the state pays for the confinement. The data also suggests racial inequities in confinement rates. For example, in 2019, Black youth were 4.43 times more likely to receive a delinquent placement compared to White youth.

This is highly problematic for two reasons. First, the research is unequivocal. Confinement frequently does more harm than good; particularly when we confine kids to punish them, rather than because they compromise our safety.   Youth experiencing confinement during childhood have poorer outcomes throughout life; are less likely to graduate high school or maintain employment; and are much more likely to struggle with mental health issues, many of which may be related to their experience in placements.  This is why most of the country has been rethinking its approach to youth confinement, and why national youth confinements (and arrests) have fallen by more than 70% in the past decade. This is not the case in Wyoming–but it could be. 

 Not convinced?  Then let’s talk about the second big reason – MONEY.  Wyoming can also save money by reducing reliance on costly confinement of young people.  Wyoming is amid a budget crisis and confinements are the most expensive and least effective intervention.  The expenditure on confinement, coupled with the cost of running the Wyoming Boys’ School and Wyoming Girls’ School is over $21 million per year; that is about $85,000 per year, per child–more than a Harvard College Education. 

We can fix this. The Joint Judiciary Interim Committee is considering two bills at their October meeting–one that collects the data we need to make good policy; and the other to set up a decision-making process that reflects Wyoming’s values and appropriately supports children while mitigating community risk.  These are sensible reforms that need your support.  If we truly want to make Wyoming a place where our children thrive and want to stay, it is time to fix our broken youth justice system.  Please contact your Senator or Representative to tell them to pass these commonsense steps.