Friday, 4 November 2011

Juvenile justice system cries for help

Wyoming continues to rely heavily on juvenile detention even though research shows it worsens a child's behavior.

By Josh Mitchell via @AddThis

CHEYENNE -- Critics say Wyoming's juvenile justice system is antiquated, ineffective and costly, and little is being done to improve it.

There continues to be violations of federal standards when it comes to detaining juveniles, and communities around the state lack the needed services to treat children so they won't re-offend.

But public officials across the Cowboy State say they are making progress in improving the system.

ACLU: State still performs poorly

The state continues to perform "poorly" in its handling of juvenile offenders, said Linda Burt, executive director of the Wyoming branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

She said she hears anecdotal reports from parents who say their children are being damaged by the state's juvenile justice system.

Even though research shows that detention can actually worsen a child's behavior, Wyoming consistently has one of the highest rates of jailing youths in the nation, she said.

The state needs to put more emphasis on rehabilitating children than jailing them, she added.

Moreover, she said 85 percent of juveniles in Wyoming go through adult court systems. A uniform juvenile court system is needed so all counties treat child offenders the same, she said.

But state Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, said such a court system would "cost a fortune."

Currently, Burt said, one court may send a child to counseling, while another court may impose detention for the same crime. But instead of creating a better system, Wyoming is simply building more detention centers.

She said some $15 million has been spent recently on new detention centers in Laramie County and Natrona County, as well as on smaller facilities in other areas of the state.

But data show that Wyoming's juvenile incarceration rate is declining.

The number of juveniles detained in juvenile jails, adult jails and the Wyoming Boys School in Worland declined from 2,095 in 2009 to 1,866 in 2010, which is almost an 11 percent drop, according to the Volunteers of America in Sheridan, which monitors juvenile detention facilities in Wyoming.

But Marc Homer, director of the Laramie-based nonprofit Kids Count, said efforts to improve the state's system have been very limited. He said Wyoming continues to rely heavily on detention, even though it is ineffective and costly.

Wyoming spent $66 million on juvenile corrections in 2008, while Vermont, which has a comparable child population, only spent $3.5 million, he said.

"We're spending a lot of money to do things in a way that doesn't make our community safer," Homer said.

At the very least, the state needs to implement a uniform data system to track how many children are being arrested, what programs they have been through and recidivism, he said. A policy adviser to Gov. Matt Mead recently said that such a data system may cost $500,000.

Fragmented court system is inefficient

The fragmented juvenile court system in Wyoming is a big problem, said Donna Sheen, executive director of the Wyoming Children's Law Center.

Currently, juveniles in Wyoming can go through three different court systems -- municipal, circuit and district. This is a waste of resources that means more administrative costs, Sheen noted.

Dividing up the court system makes it complicated for the juveniles to get the services they need, since some services are only offered through certain courts, Sheen added.

Beth Evans, chairwoman of the State Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice, agreed that the juvenile court system needs to be brought together under one roof.

All juveniles could go into that court system, which would offer a full range of treatment services. This would help ensure that all of the state's children had equal access to treatment services, she said.

The ACLU's Burt said there also are problems with children getting adequate representation. She said children can appear in court without an adult.

She also said juveniles can waive their rights to an attorney without understanding the consequences of such action. Burt said there needs to be a uniform court system that has protection for juveniles built into it.

Homer said county prosecutors across the state lobby against reform because they want to have their own "dominions," rather than comply with uniform standards.

Laramie County District Attorney Scott Homar said he thinks a uniform juvenile court system would work well in some counties, but he said it is not really needed here because the current system is showing progress through a decreased juvenile crime rate.

State changing detention approach

One of the bigger efforts taking place in Wyoming to reform the juvenile justice system involves adopting a new philosophy toward the use of detention.

The state Department of Family Services is working with the Baltimore, Md.-based Annie E. Casey Foundation to implement the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

The purpose of the initiative is to reduce the state's reliance on detention for low- and moderate-risk offenders, and instead connect those juveniles with community-based services such as mental health counseling and substance-abuse treatment.

Research shows that using detention for low- to moderate-risk juveniles is actually counterproductive and worsens a child's behavior.

Rand Young with the foundation explained that lower-level juvenile offenders can actually learn more extreme behavior when they are confined with their higher-risk peers.

This can increase recidivism, Young noted.

A report recently released by the foundation found that Wyoming has the highest rate of juvenile confinement in the nation. But Wyoming DFS communications officer Tony Lewis noted that the report was based on 2007 data.

Moving away from a philosophy of putting children in institutions and using more community resources will take years and require a "paradigm shift," Young said.

DFS: Improvements are being made

Lewis admits that there have been a lot of problems with the state's juvenile justice system, but he said progress is being made.

Recent changes include intervening with youth early on to keep them out of the court system and detention.

Law enforcement now uses a Juvenile Detention Risk Assessment to help determine what should be done with delinquents.

The assessment asks questions regarding the nature of the crime, whether it is a repeat offense and whether drugs were involved.

Another tool that the state has now is called the Positive Achievement Change Tool, Lewis said. He said this PACT assessment can help determine what may be going on with a child behaviorally and what level of intervention is appropriate.

Another change is the Legislature's passage of the Community Juvenile Services Act, which took effect in 2008. This led to the creation of 17 local boards that coordinate juvenile justice in their communities.

The board in Cheyenne is called the Laramie County Juvenile Services Joint Powers Board and has representatives from law enforcement and the court system who look at ways to fill gaps in services.

All of these improvements in the system are resulting in more kids receiving treatment services instead of being locked up, Lewis said.

He said placements of children in institutions such as the Wyoming Boys School and the Girls School in Sheridan have been on a steady decline since July 1, 2006, when there 1,343, compared to 1,014 on Sept. 1, 2011.

And juvenile crime has gone down 16 percent since 2007, he said.

Lewis said putting a child in an institution, such as a residential treatment facility, is not ideal. The best situation is for children to receive services in their own communities.

When children have to be taken out of their homes, it causes problems when it comes time to reintroduce them to their communities, Lewis said. And it disrupts the family and school life and places a stigma on a child who is sent away.

Lewis said Cheyenne is doing well when it comes to offering a wide range of services. The Capital City has the benefit of Youth Alternatives, which is a city agency that offers a number of programs for troubled youth.

But he said most communities in Wyoming still need a lot of work when it comes to developing programs and filling gaps in services. And that can be a slow process, he said, adding that Rawlins has been trying to get a crisis center for several years.

Detention facilities are improving

There also have been improvements to detention facilities in the state, Lewis said.

Now detention centers are being downsized to be more in line with best national practices, he said. For instance, the current youth detention facility in Cheyenne, which is run by a private entity, has 100 beds. But a new juvenile detention facility under construction at the Archer Complex east of Cheyenne will have 24 beds.

The new, smaller facility will be a move away from larger detention centers as the state becomes more geared to a treatment model, Lewis said.

Lewis explained that there are five regional juvenile detention centers in Wyoming: Cheyenne, Casper, Gillette, Rock Springs and Lander.

Rock Springs and Gillette have each recently completed new juvenile detention centers, while Casper's and Cheyenne's are nearing completion.

Prior to the new facilities being built, Rock Springs and Gillette did not have separate juvenile detention centers, while Cheyenne and Casper have separate facilities for children, but they are inadequate, Lewis said.

Casper's current facility is inadequate because it was a former adult jail, and Cheyenne's is simply too big, which promotes the idea of "warehousing" juveniles, Lewis said.

On average, children stay in juvenile jail for five to seven days, Lewis said.

In Gillette, juveniles did not have "sight and sound separation" from adult prisoners, which was a violation of federal requirements.

It is unclear who will run the new Laramie County juvenile detention center. The Laramie County Commission is seeking proposals from private providers who may be interested in running it.

But members of the Laramie County Juvenile Services Joint Powers Board oppose a private provider running the facility, saying the county sheriff's office would do a better job because it understands the philosophy of how to deal with juveniles.

However, the commissioners want to see if an outside entity could run it for less money.

DA says detention is the last resort

Homar said his office tries to intervene in the lives of troubled children early.

This is better than just sending a child to a residential treatment facility, such as the Boys School or the Girls School, the local district attorney said.

He said detention and out-of-home placement is a last resort.

Homar said his office has a screening team made up of members of the court system and law enforcement that reviews all juvenile citations.

This is called the "single point of entry" because all juveniles who come into the system pass through this screening process. This ensures that the same group of people is reviewing a juvenile's run-ins with the law, instead of multiple courts.

With one group overseeing a juvenile's history, trends can be spotted, and juveniles can be connected with needed services.

Homar said Laramie County does a better job than many other counties when it comes to the intervention services it provides to juveniles. But he said the county does have a gap in services because it lacks a youth crisis center.

The county had one -- Attention Homes -- until last year, when it closed because of state and federal funding cutbacks.

A crisis center provides a temporary place for children to stay when there are issues, such as problems with parents. Now, DFS is using foster homes to replace the crisis center locally.

Despite the work that remains to be done, Sheen said officials in Wyoming usually find ways to do what is best for children.

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