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The Wyoming State Juvenile Justice Advisory Board met for the last two days here in Jackson. They are appointed by the Governor and are the top experts in Wyoming on Juvenile Justice. The concept is that you bring together the top prosecutors, law enforcement, state agencies, probation officers, and those that work in the field of juvenile justice and they come up with ideas on how to improve the juvenile justice system in Wyoming. The Chairwoman is Donna Sheen, who has been leading the charge on reform of Wyoming’s juvenile justice system for years. Also at the meeting were Tony Lewis, the director of the Department of Family Services and retired Judge Gary Hartman, the Governor’s policy analyst on juvenile justice issues. The Governor has assembled quite a good team of experts and they spent the last two days really delving into the details of reforming juvenile justice.
In the legislature we spend a lot of time speaking generally about a topic and saying things like, “I support reform of the system”, but the real heavy lifting is by these volunteer board members that delve into the details. When you start talking details is when you start seeing people marking their turf and expressing their real feelings toward reform.
For many years, juvenile justice has been discussed on and off, but without any real direction. The Governor appointed retired Judge Hartman last year as his policy analyst on juvenile justice and gave clear direction to Director Lewis at the Department of Family Services and to Donna Sheen, the chair of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board that this was a high priority for the executive branch.
The Legislature recognized the high priority of the issue and also started emphasizing the issue also. Last year, Senator Tony Ross, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee pushed through a $2 million appropriation to go to communities to set up juvenile justice community boards and to begin programming to serve kids without having to use detention. This program is off and running.
Senator Bruce Burns and I attended a National Meeting of Legislators and saw Rand Young of the Annie E. Casey Foundation present their new initiative — JDAI (Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative). We asked Mr. Young if he could come to Wyoming and share this initiative with us. Mr. Young attended our Joint Judiciary Committee in Cheyenne a few months ago and the ball was starting to roll right along. So I invited Mr. Young to come back to Wyoming this past month and speak to the Wyoming County Commissioners, County Attorneys, and County Sheriffs. All of them were meeting in Laramie for their annual meetings. Mr. Young and the initiative were well received.
At the same time this was going on, the Joint Judiciary Committee began to debate two bills that may be sponsored by the committee in the upcoming legislative session. One is a bill that sets standards for facilities holding juveniles and the other sets up a statewide objective assessment tool to determine when a kid should be held in a detention facility. These bills will be debated again at the Joint Judiciary’s upcoming meeting in Laramie on November 16-18.
Yesterday at the meeting of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board we spent a considerable amount of time discussing data collection. To understand how to solve a problem, we first need to know exactly what the problem is, if any. One of the major precepts of JDAI (Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative) is that the use of detention is the last option. The only kids that should be in detention are those that pose a threat to society (murder, rape, violent crime) and those that have repeatedly violated the terms of their probation and you are out of options. But before that point of having no other options, you have tried diversion, family therapy, ankle bracelets, day reporting, weekend reporting, etc.
The other reason for data collection is to show that you do not have a disproportionate minority contact (dmc) issue. This is a big issue across the nation and the only way to prove this is not true in your county, is to have good data collection.
There is actually a lot more going on in Wyoming on this topic, but this gives you a flavor of all of the energy and work that is going into juvenile justice in this state. If you are interested in learning more about JDAI, this is their website.