Juvenile Justice in Wyoming article from CST

By on January 3, 2010

Critics say juvenile justice problem is overstated

Advocates push reform

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buy this photo Angelica Arriaga prepares to hand out stockings full of candy and books to the students at the Juvenile Detention Center on Christmas morning 2008. (File/Star-Tribune)



Juvenile justice reform advocates have been pushing Wyoming to adopt a philosophy that favors fewer jailed kids and more alternatives to detention.

2010 might be their year.

A bill set to be introduced in the upcoming legislative session would create a uniform screening tool for young offenders. State officials are also working to create a network of smaller, regional facilities and dormitory-style operations that will reduce reliance on traditional detention centers.

“Support for reform is out there,” said retired district Judge Gary Hartman, who serves as Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s special advisor on juvenile justice.

Reform advocates argue Wyoming’s current system locks up juvenile offenders who would be better served by alternative programs. That belief, which is subject to debate, helped prompt legislation that would require police officers to perform risk assessments on the children they take into custody.

Local authorities would use the results to help determine whether juveniles should be jailed, taken to a group home or released to parents.

The Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee endorsed the bill in November. Republican Rep. Keith Gingery, who helped bring the bill to the committee, hopes the state will adopt the philosophy of Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. The initiative pushes for less reliance on secure detention facilities for young offenders in favor of intervention programs.

“You are trying to make sure that they don’t grow up to be adult criminals,” Gingery said.

The initiative promotes a graduated system for dealing with juveniles, with less severe interventions at the start. A child who is caught shoplifting, for example, might be required to attend a weekend program designed to push him into a more positive direction.

“Our objective should be to try to find how to get assistance to the family so we don’t have problems with that kid later on,” Gingery said. “I think the state, the Department of Family Services, should come out and say ‘This is the philosophy we are pushing. Counties, take a look at it and see if it works for you.'”

At the same time, Gingery said it would be important for counties to establish programs within that philosophy that are designed to fit their own needs.

“Counties need to figure this out on their own,” he said. “We don’t want to dictate.”

Smaller facilities

State leaders, meanwhile, are trying to create a system of smaller juvenile facilities around the state. The plan includes locked detention centers in Casper, Cheyenne, Gillette, Rock Springs and Lander. Those facilities would be complimented by staff-secure beds — akin to dorm rooms with supervision — in Sheridan, Jackson, Basin and possibly Rawlins.

Officials hope the new system will keep young offenders closer to home and keep more kids out of traditional detention centers.

Hartman identified two major benefits of reform. He believes keeping low-risk juveniles out of detention centers will reduce the chances they become repeat offenders down the road. Trying to ‘scare kids straight’ makes then actually more likely to get in trouble, he said.

The retired judge believes detention should be reserved for high-risk offenders.

“Except for that small population, detention doesn’t do any good,” he said. “It doesn’t ‘teach them a lesson.’ ”

Reform is also cheaper, he said. Holding a child in secure detention can cost up to $200 a day.

Mixed success

Past reform initiatives have produced mixed results in Wyoming. Two years ago, lawmakers created a juvenile services board program that would allow communities to design programs tailored for their local needs.

The Legislature also gave the program $2 million to be distributed among the various service boards. So far, a cumbersome application process has meant none of the money has reached the counties, Gingery said.

“I’m still optimistic it is going to work,” he said. “I just think it got implemented really poorly.”

The reform effort has encountered other obstacles. The judiciary committee’s screening bill initially raised concerns from some in law enforcement, who worried the legislation would take away decision-making power from local officials.

Some officials have also questioned whether the need for reform has been overstated by advocates. They’ve also expressed worry about the state taking a cookie-cutter approach to juvenile detention.

Gingery concedes concerns about the current system might be overblown in some counties, who already have alternative programs in place.

“Perhaps some people over-dramatize the situation,” he said. “A lot of communities are doing a good job.”

Still, he believes the state could benefit from a change in philosophy, even if each county implements it to suit its own situation.

“You don’t throw up your hands and say, “We have a good system,'” Gingery said. “You keep working at it.”

Reach reporter Joshua Wolfson at (307) 266-0582 or at josh.wolfson@trib.com. Visit tribtown.trib.com/JoshuaWolfson/blog to read his blog.

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