Last month the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a life-sentence for a Wyoming teenager convicted of a Sheridan murder. Wyoming policymakers might want to consider that as an omen. If the governor and the legislature can’t do something about our dysfunctional juvenile justice system the courts will do so just as they did in school funding.
Juvenile justice reform isn’t a priority for the governor or the legislature despite wasted money and wasted lives. There’s a steep cost for this system producing consistently failed outcomes. Tens of millions of your tax dollars fund this decayed system. You pay a lot now and even more later. If your child falls into the meat-grinder, long-term personal and psychological costs can be even higher. As a one-time member of Wyoming’s Parole Board, I know nearly all adults for whom you pay to house in a prison had a lengthy, unaddressed juvenile criminal record before being sentenced to an expensive prison cell.
More than 70,000 juveniles are held in jails across America. Wyoming does more than its fair share. In 1971 the Columbia Research Center ranked Wyoming second in the nation for per capita rate of detained juveniles. Forty years later that remains unchanged. A lot of lives have been ruined over those four decades.
When lawmakers built the system decades ago, there was an excuse. There existed scant research informing lawmakers what works. There’s no excuse today. Now we know. Jails may be the place to put some children who commit violent crimes, i.e. children we are afraid of; jail is not for kids we are simply mad at. Today Wyoming children are jailed for crimes as menial as smoking cigarettes. The strategy doesn’t work. The earlier you start sending children to jail, the more likely they’ll be to spend adult years in prison. The failure to provide mental health and other services to youthful offenders will reap greater problems and higher costs in coming years.
Wyoming’s treatment of juvenile offenders is like bloodletting, a popular medical procedure used well into the 1800s for treating every ailment from acne to cancer, insanity, and other diseases. Centuries after science discredited the practice, stakeholders (usually barbers) continued to let blood. It didn’t work for patients, but it did work for barbers.
Wyoming’s juvenile justice system doesn’t work for children or their families. However, it works well for its gatekeepers. Wyoming has a feudal-lord system. Each of the 23 elected county attorneys is lord over their county. They have benefactors in the governor’s office and the legislature.
Under Governor Freudenthal, state grants provided an incentive for local communities to collaborate to improve services for juveniles believing schools, mental health providers, the medical community, and parents had something to offer and that prosecuting lawyers and judges should work with them collaboratively.
Communities were required to form a collaborative board, allowing interested entities to work together to improve services. Several county attorneys didn’t see any value in sharing the keys to their kingdoms. They waited patiently knowing they would outlast the governor who sought the reforms.
Soon after Governor Mead replaced Freudenthal the feudal-lords returned to power. This Governor reversed the progress, marginalizing those who supported a collaborative, research-based reform, replacing them with advisers who pleased the feudal-lords.
The grant program giving an incentive to make research-based reforms? Well, the prosecutors are now asking legislators to just give that money to them, no strings, allowing them to continue doing what they want whether it works or not.
All those studies demonstrating Wyoming is doing harm to children under the status quo? As the Geico-gekko would say, “Fugg-it-about-it.” Studies take time to read and put politicians in the uneasy position of saying no to a member of the club.
Yes, if you’re one of those children, the system is generously described as “dysfunctional.” It’s really an abomination by any justice measure. But it works for the feudal lords and their political allies. As long as they stand at the gate, not much will change. Hello voters!