Education Not Incarceration: Fremont County Pioneers Juvenile Detention Alternative Program
In a classroom at a Riverton activity center kids are sitting in a “connection circle.” They toss a ball around, and whoever has it has got to say what makes them happiest.
“I’m happiest when I am around my family,” one girl says before bouncing the ball to a boy. “I’m happiest when I’m riding my dirt bike,” he replies.
The idea is that if two kids are happy when they are doing the same thing, they make a connection. It wouldn’t feel out of place at an alternative high school–it’s actually an alternative to juvenile detention.
This is the “Wyo10 Day Reporting Center:” Fremont Counties alternative to juvenile detention. Five of the seven kids here today probably would have spent time in detention if this program didn’t exist, according to program director Melinda Cox. For Latisha Goodwin it was either this, or jail. “[I’m here because] I got in a fight, and used drugs,” Goodwin says.
Before she started coming to this program a few months ago Goodwin says hadn’t gone to school for six months. But she says being around the people here has got her motivated to tackle schoolwork again.
“I got my two tests done, science and reading,” Goodwin says. “Now I just have to work on writing, math, and social studies, and then I could possibly get my GED.”
Seventeen year old Coy Bennett is only at the Day Center for a week. He was suspended from his high school, and because he was already on probation he says the judge told him to come here, instead of just staying home. Bennett says that was a good call.
”If I were sitting at home even if I had the work with me I wouldn’t work on it–I would play Xbox,” he says. “But here I am keeping up on it.”
The Wyo10 Day Reporting Center opened in 2013 and serves kids from 6th to 12th grade. It is part of a broader initiative to cut down on juvenile detention that a number of Wyoming counties have taken on in the last few years. While a 2011 report by the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union reported that Wyoming had one of the highest rates of juvenile incarceration in the country, programs like this one have helped the state cut its juvenile detention rate by half since 2013.
But the Day Reporting center in Fremont County probably wouldn’t have opened at all if something else hadn’t happened right before–the juvenile jail shut down. Fremont County Undersheriff Ryan Lee says the county detention center has one hundred and ninety-two beds, and up until a few years ago the juvenile wing took up twenty of those.
“On average we were only holding about 3 juveniles [at a given time], he says.”
Lee says the county decided to close the juvenile wing after it had to start paying extra to send adult inmates to neighboring county detention centers.
“We were spending upwards of $300,00 a year to incarcerate people out of county, just so we could keep the juvenile detention center open for three people,” Lee says.
The Wyo10 Day Reporting Center costs about $260,000 a year of federal, state, and county money to operate, says director Melinda Cox. The program has served one hundred and ten kids in the last three years. It allows juveniles to stay on track with their schoolwork, and can help them avoid becoming part of the twenty percent of Wyoming youth who don’t finish high school. Cox says her kids are now much more likely to do things like pass the high school equivalency test, or HiSET.
“We just had two kids graduate with their HiSET,” Cox says. “And one is attending college. And he was a dropout.”
Cox says the center doesn’t need to feel like a jail to help these kids get back on track.
“I’ve worked in juvenile justice my whole adult career. And I know that that punitive style does not work.”
Cox says there should be a juvenile detention center in Fremont county for kids who commit offenses too serious for the day center, but there is no plan to build one anytime soon. That absence has hit the Native American community particularly hard. While kids off the reservation in Fremont county who need to be detained are taken to Rock Springs two and a half hours away, the tribes have an arrangement to take detained kids to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Busby, Montana–over five hours away.
“You don't want to be able to do that. You want to be able to have them here,” says Eastern Shoshone Juvenile Services Director Clarence Thomas.
Thomas says the Eastern Shoshone Youth have been doing well at the Day Reporting Center. He says, while he doesn’t want to see a large new juvenile jail, he would like a smaller detention center where kids who are inebriated can sober up.
At the Wyo10 Day Reporting Center Coy Bennett says he’s glad he was able to come here and not go to jail. He knows firsthand what that’s like.
“It’s pretty boring in prison. There isn’t much to do, you just at there all day. This is a lot nicer than going to jail.”