Wyoming, Like the Rest of the Country, Needs Juvenile Justice Reform
Beth Evans discusses a problem in Wyoming that's prevalent throughout the country. States take different approaches to juvenile justice that range from harshly punitive to restorative or rehabilitative. But even within states, different counties seem to be enforcing vastly different systems of juvenile law.
A juvenile incarcerated in Natrona County is likely to be detained for a Minor In Possession (MIP)-alcohol related offense. A child in need of supervision (CHINS) in Laramie County is apt to end up at the nearby juvenile detention center. It’s not uncommon for Sweetwater County youth to be placed in a facility outside their home county, even though the County has its own juvenile detention center. And, in Campbell County, juveniles are sentenced to an adult jail that can’t insure sight and sound separation between adult and juvenile inmates.
On the other hand, if a juvenile lives in Big Horn, Washakie, or Hot Springs Counties, detention is considered a last resort and youth are held accountable for their actions through various community programs. In Fremont County a juvenile receiving a citation also receives information about the Fremont County Youth Services’ diversion program. And, if you live in Teton or Uinta Counties, the best practices model, Restorative Justice, is promoted to help juveniles recognize their behaviors, pay restitution for their offense, and learn from their mistakes.
Evans blames Wyoming for failing to create uniform standards for detention and for its lack of a uniform system of data collection in juvenile cases. She also faults the state's reliance on incarceration as a juvenile punishment, even for "for non-criminal misbehaviors such as possessing tobacco, curfew or truancy violations, drinking under age, or running away." Similar reasonable arguments have been lodged frequently since it became trendy decades ago to base policy on the now discredited notion that kids who commit "adult crimes" should do "adult time."
It's time to dust off and take seriously the old idea that kids who make mistakes can learn to do better. Treating them like adult criminals is still the first choice in many counties and states, despite being the most expensive and least productive option.
We have the knowledge and expertise to move beyond our overuse of secure detention, help borderline young offenders from becoming serious criminals, and develop programs that can provide assistance to high need, low risk juveniles in less restrictive environments. If not now, when will Wyoming act?
Indeed, when will the rest of the nation act?
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