Group seeks funding to keep juveniles out of jail

CASPER — There is an amendment to Gov. Mark Gordon’s proposed budget in the works that would seek to address Wyoming’s incarceration rate of juveniles, which is one of the highest in rates in the nation.

The Wyoming Youth Justice Coalition is currently ratcheting up an effort to get a budget amendment passed that would allocate $3 million towards funding County Juvenile Service Boards, county-level outfits dedicated to keeping juveniles out of the formal correctional system, like detention, and in their communities.

As the budget stands, there are zero dollars allocated for the County Juvenile Service Boards (CJSBs).

“The counties are the frontlines for preventing kids from entering the system and helping kids get out of our formal youth justice systems,” said Donna Sheen, director of the Wyoming Children’s Law Center, the organization that’s home to the Wyoming Youth Justice Coalition.

Without the CJSBs, advocates and experts argue, more juveniles will be taken out of their communities and put into detention facilities like the Wyoming Boys’ School and the Wyoming Girls’ School, which have adverse outcomes and tends to land them back in detention.

“Community placement helps kids,” said Dr. Kayla Burd, an assistant professor of psychology and law at the University of Wyoming. “Specifically for detention of youth, 70 percent end up returning within one year.”

Crook County’s CJSB had their number of youth heard in district or juvenile court reduced from 40 to 15 in three years, saving the state roughly $22,000 per child for a total of $550,000.

“I certainly agree that we need to put emphasis on Community Juvenile Services because ultimately it is better to keep kids in their community,” said Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, who’s a member of the Joint Judiciary Committee.

After Gordon’s sweeping budget cuts following the onset of the pandemic and the downturn of the energy industry, funding for the CJSBs was cut from the Department of Family Services Budget.

The $3 million they plan to ask for is roughly $2 million more than was budgeted for the CJSBs in the 2021-2022 biennium, but advocates plan to argue that the state needs to make up for even more money than was lost to just the budget cuts.

Not only did Wyoming lose money for the CJSBs, the state also lost grant money because the Volunteers of America, the group responsible for obtaining the grant money, had their application denied and “will not be applying for this state funding moving forward,” according to the State Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice’s year-end report.

Most states do not have to apply for this grant money, however. States can join a federal program that provides funding to address juvenile justice issues, but Wyoming has not participated since 1996.

Part of the reason Wyoming does not re-apply for the federal dollars, Sheen said, is because the money may be taken away in a year if Wyoming does not meet certain benchmarks set by the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018. The examples Sheen gave were detaining status offenders and housing juveniles in adult facilities.

Under the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, children can’t be housed in adult facilities and youth who commit status offenses can’t be institutionalized to receive the annual federal funds. A status offense is a behavior that’s only punishable because of a person’s status as a child. If the same person were to perform this act as an adult, it would not be a crime. For example: underage use of tobacco and alcohol, curfew violations and truancy are status offenses.

Sheen said it might be time to attempt to get that federal money again.

Although Provenza has hope for what the amendment could do, she maintains some skepticism about how the money it provides will be distributed.

“Part of my concern is the equitability,” she said. “In some counties you might have a judge who’s more likely to send kids to detention than others. I think it’s a step in the right direction at least for now until we can create a juvenile justice structure that’s honestly completely different.”

It was revealed in June that roughly 2,000 kids went through the juvenile justice system (as a whole, not just detention) in 2019 across 14 of Wyoming’s counties and that over a quarter (about 550) were in the system for status offenses. Of those, children were mostly punished with a fine, Narina Nuñez, a member of the state advisory council on juvenile justice, told the Legislature’s joint judiciary committee this summer.

Only about 11 percent of the kids in the system were charged with a violent crime or what is referred to as a “Crime against a Person.”

Roughly 54 percent of those were charged with simple battery, which is defined as: “the intentional touching of another in an angry manner or the intentional use of force or violence against another. Grabbing someone’s arm, pushing or punching a person, or striking a victim with an object all are crimes of battery.”

Ten percent of the violent offenders were charged with simple assault which is defined as “the threat or attempted injury of another individual. Despite no physical contact, bodily injury, or battery being required.”

One hurdle the CJSBs ran into in the past was the lack of funding for the smaller counties, because allocation of money is based on population. That system resulted in less populous counties getting so little money they could not successfully build out community services for juveniles.

This time around, Sheen hopes, the base amount that counties get will be higher, while some of the funding will still be based on population so the bigger counties can have adequate funds.

Advocates drafting the amendment are still early in the process and do not yet have a sponsor.

This draft comes at a time when the Joint Judiciary Committee voted to sponsor a bill for the upcoming budget session that would create a data-collection system about the youth who enter the justice system, something the state has lacked and has for years.

The thinking is that if that bill is successfully enacted, it will be far easier to address Wyoming’s high juvenile incarceration rates since much more robust data will be available.