CASPER — Lawmakers received some of the first available data on juvenile justice in Wyoming during a joint judiciary meeting last week, but large blind spots still remain.
The state incarcerates children at one of the highest rates in the country, according to broad federal numbers. The issue with data in Wyoming comes when trying to take a deeper look at those numbers.
The group with the most comprehensive data is the State Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice, which was formed in 1997, but only started collecting data on the topic in 2015.
“The questions that you asked today as a committee, we asked in 1997,” Narina Nuñez, an executive on the council, said at the June 14 meeting.
Of the 14 Wyoming counties that provided data on their youth in 2019, close to 2,000 children went through Wyoming’s justice system in some capacity, said Nuñez said.
About 210 of the 2,000 children were there because of cases classified as “crimes against a person.” These are mostly fighting cases, not more severe assault charges, Nuñez said. And roughly 100 kids were placed in a diversion program in 2019.
While these numbers provide much more information than the state had before, they’re not entirely representative of Wyoming’s juvenile justice status because there is not standardized method of reporting for each county. In other words, Natrona County may classify one case differently from Laramie County.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a start,” Nuñez said.
Nuñez said she felt like they were making baby steps, and were headed in the right direction and were on the path to understanding and addressing the juvenile justice issue in Wyoming. That is, until the 2020 budget cuts Gov. Mark Gordon issued amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Nuñez said it felt like she was slowly pushing a boulder up a mountain for 24 years and then had it roll back down because of the budget cuts.
The lack of data is largely the reason for the persistence of this issue, Nuñez said following her testimony.
Another barrier to data collection is the lack of coordination between the State Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice and the Legislature, despite the fact that there is meant to be a committee member at the council meetings, according to statute. A couple minutes into the discussion of the relationship between the committee and the council, the chairman of the committee, Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, said he realized right then that he was recently appointed as the liaison but has not been attending the group’s meetings.
Almost the entire day was spent discussing the holes in data collection and how data may be collected going forward — but not without pushback.
“I don’t believe we can draw conclusions from the 14 counties. I believe every county is different,” said John Worrall, the president of the Wyoming County & Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
“I just don’t see a major problem,” he later added.
Worrall said prosecutors would “maybe” support some type of action on more data collection.
Prosecutorial opposition is not new. In a 2011 joint judiciary committee meeting, multiple prosecutors spoke against changing the juvenile justice system in the state and testified that the system was working well in their counties.
In part because the committee is still trying to grasp the scope of the problem, no bill drafts were voted on. The committee did ask the legislative services office to look into multiple aspects of the issue ahead of the committee’s next interim meeting in August: mandated data reporting, how the state’s criminal justice information services can help, a uniform diversion program for the state, and the possibility of mandating legislative members to serve as a liaison to the state advisory council on juvenile justice.
Olsen has said that he does not think there needs to be another council created to address this issue and has faith that with more funding, the State Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice can take this on.
“This is a review of the state’s entire juvenile justice system. It doesn’t necessarily require 10 bill drafts to come out of it, right?” said Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, the co-chair of the committee. “We’re looking at how it operates in total. What we have learned today is a tragic lack of any information for how the juvenile justice system operates.”
“It’s a little bit difficult for us to know how to take the appropriate action items,” she later added.
The joint judiciary committee will meet next on Aug. 30 and 31 in Powell. Nuñez said she would try to arrive with more data in August.