Committee approves bill to collect juvenile crime data

CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee on Thursday voted to sponsor a draft bill lawmakers hope will compel the state to finally collect juvenile justice data.

The state has historically lacked a uniform, comprehensive data collection system to measure things like recidivism and what is or isn’t working within its juvenile justice system. The inability to track outcomes for youth who enter the system frustrates state agency heads, academics and leaders of nonprofits. The Judiciary Committee has made the topic one of its priorities during the interim.

The draft bill ultimately sponsored by the committee was similar to one discussed at its September meeting, with two major changes. Following testimony at that meeting from the Wyoming Department of Family Services and the Division of Criminal Investigation, it was determined DFS would be more equipped to handle the administration of such a data reporting tool than DCI, the committee’s original suggestion.

The effective date was also moved back to July 1, 2024, likely to give the department time to develop and begin implementing this data reporting system, should the bill pass the Legislature’s 2022 budget session.

The committee also adopted five amendments to the bill recommended by Donna Sheen, director of the Wyoming Children’s Law Center. One helps broaden the bill, so data is collected both on youth within the juvenile system and on those prosecuted as adults.

Other amendments would ensure data be collected in every instance a juvenile is placed on probation or in detention, and that data is collected for most types of offenses.

The current draft bill, however, does not have a way to make sure agencies are submitting the data.

At previous meetings, both lawmakers and those testifying expressed concern about potentially penalizing local law enforcement agencies or municipalities for not adhering to crime data collection efforts, as many in the state are small, underfunded or both.

Still, others worried no consequences would mean noncompliance – and in the case of juvenile justice, additional decades of inadequate data collection and no way to measure how the system is working.

Lindsey Schilling, senior administrator of DFS’s Social Services Division, which is responsible for juvenile justice, expressed this sentiment during Thursday’s meeting. Schilling had been asked by Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, the committee’s co-chair, whether the department had an opinion about a way to compel enforcement.

“Without some sort of enforcement mechanism, really getting the data then is going to be problematic, which is where we started with this conversation,” Schilling said. “So, we don’t have a preference, necessarily, but if the responsibility is going to be given to the department, I would be concerned without some sort of explicit authority to collect that data that we would then be in a catch-22, where we would come before this committee again or the larger Legislature and say, ‘Well, yes, we have the responsibility, but we didn’t get it done.’”

“(We’ll) give it some teeth,” Nethercott responded.

A vote on a second draft bill, an effort to reduce the number of youth confined in the state, failed. The bill would have required a structured decision-making process to make out-of-home placements, and it raised the minimum age of commitment to the Wyoming Boys’ School or Girls’ School from 12 to 15.

Sheen and Kayla Burd, an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming and a member of the Wyoming Youth Justice Coalition, testified about adverse outcomes that may be seen in younger teenagers who are confined in facilities or put in detention.

Many, however, testified against the draft bill, including DFS Director Korin Schmidt and Guardian ad Litem Director Joe Belcher, who said they would like to divert youth to things like mental health programs rather than send them to the Wyoming Boys’ School or Girls’ School, but the state simply doesn’t have the resources.

They added that the agencies already use similar mechanisms when deciding placement for justice system-involved youth.

Three district court judges from Carbon, Sweetwater and Uinta counties said it would be “devastating” to limit the tools available to judges, especially for youth who may have committed serious crimes.

Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, pushed back. She said the Legislature and what it chooses to fund plays a role in the lack of treatment or rehabilitation available to youth.

“I would hate for us to lean back on that and say, ‘Well, we haven’t funded these services, so we can’t change anything, let’s just keep using detention when we know that it harms youth, let’s keep doing the status quo because we don’t have a bigger solution right now,’” Provenza said. “We’re talking about children – we’re talking about the future of our state, and, to me, this bill sounds like an investment.”