Albany County Works To Break School To Prison Pipeline
Earlier this summer, the Governor's Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice gave Albany County the Neal D. Madson Award for its groundbreaking work with juvenile offenders. Since 2014, Albany County says it's reduced the number of young people who end up in secure detention by 34 percent. That's when the county formed a Community Juvenile Service Board and started a diversion program, which advocates say has been good for kids and the state's bottom-line.
"When you hear about people making bad decisions and going down a negative path it mostly happens in the teenage years," according to Shelly who's an expert of sorts on effective intervention with juvenile offenders.
"If you reach out to someone in trouble in their teenage years, I feel like they are more likely to realize what they are doing wrong before it can lead to long-time incarceration and state facilities," she said.
Shelly knows what works because she's been there. She's a minor so "Shelly" is an alias to protect her privacy. By the age of 15 she'd already had several interactions with law enforcement; from possession of tobacco to fighting in public to vandalism. But smoking, fighting and graffiti were all things she grew up watching family and friends do. It wasn't until she ended up in Albany County's diversion program that she started to see a different future for herself.
"Like, of course, there's community service," said Shelly. But there's more to it than putting in hours at the senior center or the soup kitchen, she said. The diversion program run by Big Brothers Big Sisters in Laramie also includes fun and enriching activities like mountain biking, creative writing and college visits.
"I guess that's to show there's more to little Laramie than getting in trouble," she said with a smirk on her face.
Instead of going through a court proceeding and ending up in a juvenile detention center, Shelly went through what's called a single point of entry program. A team of people, from the county prosecutor to school staff to the Department of Family Services, worked together to figure out what would help her get on a positive course.
Depending on the offense and the risk factors in a kid's life, the team could recommend community service, and mentoring and tutoring through Big Brothers Big Sisters, as well as mental health or substance abuse counseling. The team also tries to root out underlying causes of bad behavior like abuse and neglect, while offering support to families. The big goal is to work as a team to give kids the support they need to stay out of the school to prison pipeline.
Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent said, "When I first took office in 2014 I had an opportunity to look at our crime statistics and reports from the age group of 18 to 25." And she said those rates were high.
"So, what that showed to me is that we need to intervene sooner in these individuals' lives prior to them turning 18 and I'm happy to say as of this date we have done that," Trent said.
According to state statute, it's up to county attorneys to determine how they want to handle juvenile offenders. In 15 of Wyoming's 23 counties, prosecutors work with their Community Juvenile Service Board to implement alternatives to out-of-home placements and detention.
"However, the state hasn't figured out a system to save resources and incentivize it [in] other communities," said Trent.
But she is motivated to figure out how to make this work. Trent said that every year she pieces funding together and applies for grants to support the program. That's a headache she's willing to deal with because she knows it works. She said adequate and steady funding from the state would encourage more county attorneys to do what she's doing.
Shelly pointed out that investing in her now could save the state money in the long run.
"Putting people in prison costs people a lot of money. It's tax-payer dollars," said Shelly. "I feel like if people knew what programs like this could do it would such a big thing."
One of the first things County Attorney Trent did was engage the school district because school is a place kids spend a lot of time.
Albany County School District Director of Special Services Steve Slyman said kids bring whatever they're dealing with at home—whether it's poverty, hunger, abuse or mental health issues—with them wherever they go.
"These kids are dealing with trauma all day long," said Slyman. "Why wouldn't we try to intervene and [work] through some of that during the school day?"
Slyman is the school district representative on the single-point-of-entry team.
"Most outside counselors see kids once a week. We have counselors and school psychologists and nurses and teachers and paraprofessionals and principals and people that know these kids and interact with them all day long," said Slyman. "Why shouldn't we be better informed about how to meet those needs on a daily basis?"
Laurel, a friend of Shelly's from the diversion program, agrees.
"All people deserve to have a good life. And if people don't think the so-called bad kids need help, then they are wrong. Because everybody deserves a chance at a good life," she said.
Laurel, who is also going by an alias, said the support in and out of school has helped empower her to make different choices.
"I've had a couple bad ideas while being in the diversion program, but because of the things that they've told me I didn't do it and just went along with my day," she said.
Laurel said last time her friends invited her to drink and do graffiti she told them she had to stay home to do chores. And a couple them showed up at her house to help her clean. She said she realized kids will do just about anything for companionship.
"You don't have to go out and spray paint stuff to talk about boys and eat popcorn."
And Laurel didn't need juvenile detention to figure that out.