Governor Mead is continuing a long-standing Wyoming tradition. He’s joined a lengthy list of Governor’s who have participated in a melodrama that always ends the same way. The interests of Wyoming children and families are eventually sold out to a group of whining judges and prosecutors. Like those before him, there was a brief time when this governor could see the damage Wyoming’s juvenile justice system is doing to young people. But that was before a group of lawyers and judges stood in his light.
For nearly four decades the melodrama has followed the same script. A group of experts in juvenile justice studies the issue. Over many months they conduct public meetings, invite input, hold hearings, study the data, review best practices and develop a sincere proposal. As the proposal begins to win political support, a deus ex machina is written into the script. A well worn dramatic device, it’s the point in the story when a seemingly inextricable problem is abruptly solved with a contrived intervention.
The “gods out of the machine” are a group of district court judges and elected county attorneys. After months of discussion during which they hide in the weeds, they appear at a legislative hearing, en masse. They take turns walking to the microphone, addressing legislators in their lawyerly best attire, with their lawyerly best arguments. In a few moments, the politicians melt away from bold ideas as these “experts” carefully explain why solutions that have worked in most others states simply cannot work in Wyoming.
The plot reaches its climax with a press release that must, by now, be a form on the computers in the governor’s office where only the name of the sitting governor needs to be entered. It reads as follows, “Governor (fill in the blank) issued a statement saying he has wanted to work with stakeholders in the state's juvenile justice system to come up with a plan for making improvements. ‘There are prosecutors and judges in Wyoming that the rest of the state can learn from and I want their input so we don't reinvent the wheel.’ The Governor also said stakeholders have told him, ‘that it needs to be a consensus effort, not a top-down mandate. So, if the consensus is a unified system, great, if it is something else that is appropriate."
It is the contrived appearance of the judges and prosecutors forever preventing consensus. Yet it is the need of timid politicians for the cover of consensus preventing the state from achieving a juvenile justice system that actually serves children.
Wyoming has a feudal lord system. Like the feudal system of the middle ages, Wyoming feudal lords, i.e. judges and county attorneys, observe a set of reciprocal obligations among themselves as lords over vassals and fiefdoms. They honor those obligations assuring the system works for one another with little regard for whether it works for the public good. Judges are more concerned with output than outcomes and so the county attorneys provide them with a cookie cutter approach to juveniles assuring the docket moves on schedule. The county attorneys who stand for election on a partisan ballot every four years need to be tough on crime. They have a need to control the system, decide who gets charged with what crime, and how they are punished. The judges acquiesce. It all works quite well for the feudal lords. For the children? Not so well.
Governor Mead should gather all the studies Wyoming has conducted since the 1960’s on this matter. The size of the stack is impressive in itself. What’s even more impressive is that once you wipe off all the dust, they each offer substantially the same recommendations….recommendations that have been blocked for 40 years by the feudal lords who benefit most from the dysfunction.
The financial costs to taxpayers are enormous. The human costs to children and families whose lives are ground up in the system are incalculable. Yet sadly their lives are secondary to the tradition Governor Mead has chosen to continue.