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State Senator Contends That Juvenile Justice Policy Has Always Been A Priority

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Over the last 20 years, the number of juveniles incarcerated in Wyoming has led to discussions over whether troubled youth is handled properly in the state. Despite stories of young people who've been improperly treated in Wyoming's juvenile justice system, little in the way of reforms have occurred. Part of the issue has been cost. Also, many prosecutors have opposed statewide reforms and the other problem is the lack of data. This year the legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee is the latest to explore the issue. Cheyenne Senator Tara Nethercott is a co-chair of that committee and she spoke to Bob Beck.

Bob Beck: Senator Nethercott, maybe you could just sort of explain what the issue is to listeners, and we've had these high rates of incarcerated juveniles for a long time. Any idea what's been driving this?

Headshot of Tara Nethercott
Tara Nethercott
Senator Tara Nethercott

Tara Nethercott: Well, I have a sense for what may be driving that. And that really is just access to resources. You know, rural Wyoming in some of these smaller communities, may not have the necessary resources for some of the things these juveniles are facing. And so we call it incarceration, or you may call it confinement, but I think it's important to recognize, particularly when we're dealing with juveniles, that even though they may be in an in placement situation, that would be considered, quote unquote, incarceration, that really, there's a lot of treatment and resources that are offered to the juvenile. Because the goal of juvenile courts, and our juvenile justice system in Wyoming really, is to allow for that youth to become a productive citizen, and to provide the necessary resources to that individual so that they can do that. And so that sometimes requires extreme action or the right resource with the right job.

BB: I've often wondered if part of the problem is policy? I do know you have some prosecutors in the state that, frankly, think a great way to change someone's behavior is to put them behind bars. So is that something you have to battle with?

TN: I think that's something we need to ask about and understand more thoroughly. I am not prepared to commit to that's the reason why - zealous prosecutors or zealous judges even. I know that in the juvenile justice system, when a juvenile comes into the system, unlike our criminal justice system, there's a significant amount of resources that are applied into the juvenile justice system. So most commonly a juvenile's parents are involved, teachers, resource officers, they're appointed an attorney themselves. And so there's significantly more thought and deliberation that goes into outcomes for juveniles. And I know it's easy to just default [to] that's not the case. But I believe that truly Wyoming has a fairly decent juvenile justice system and thoughtful efforts are made. Now, you know, continuous improvement and making sure that Wyoming is employing best practices and ensuring that we don't have areas where there is zealousness or disparate results for our juveniles needs to be constantly measured and monitored. And I think that's part of the role of the legislative branch and certainly the Joint Judiciary Committee.

BB: You were looking for a lot of information this week and it struck me that maybe you felt like you didn't get a lot of information. What seems to be the problem of sort of figuring this business out?

TN: Well, it's apparent that there are potentially too many cooks in the kitchen. So where the data is also being siloed, or not gathered in a way that's meaningful. I think everyone wants to be helpful and supportive of youth and there's a lot of good intentions. And so we have a lot of different agencies, a lot of different entities, a lot of local control issues associated with the juvenile justice system, that results in perhaps a lack of concentrated effort or measurable outcomes, as a result of maybe too many efforts going on simultaneously. Then we have the inherent nature of the juvenile justice system, which is intended to be confidential to protect the juvenile, allowing them to become adults with a clean history and without some of that background that resulted in them being in the system in the first place. And so getting access to that data I think that can be challenging. I also think our Wyoming court systems have struggled with this for a long time that we don't have digitized records and information associated with what gets filed with the courts and how decisions are being made.

BB: Over the years, you'd hear the stories of kids that would get lost in the system or got crosswise with the wrong person, really for minor infractions. And it led to some tragic consequences. Is that going to have to be part of this game plan for how you deal with some of these kids?

TN: I certainly think so. And I think some of it just has to do with what people with good intentions believe are the right results. So ensuring that Wyoming truly is employing best practices. But there's different philosophies associated with juvenile justice and some of that comes from early intervention to steer those youth in the right direction. And there can be some unintended consequences with that, such as labeling them as delinquent or having them get lost in the system or working a plan that may not be workable for their particular situation and matching them with the right resource. So I think that's a legitimate concern, understanding whether or not Wyoming is utilizing those practices underlying, understanding where those disparities might occur and how we can resolve them. But the lack of data is really frustrating for me as a lawmaker and decision maker for policy. To understand whether or not that's occurring or not, most of this information really is truly anecdotal.

BB: I know there are some communities, Laramie is actually one, that have set aside some resources for troubled youth such as Laramie's Youth Crisis Center. Those do cost a lot of money and require some resources. This is something that the state could start developing across the state. I mean, do they have the kind of money to do what's needed?

TN: Well, I think the State of Wyoming does invest with local communities as well. So, again, I want to push back on the inference that resources are not being provided to juvenile offenders in Wyoming, they certainly are. And as well as in our local communities, I think Wyoming has a good history of taking a priority for this issue and there's a lot of stakeholders involved that care about the youth of this state. But making sure that we have the right resources and the right programs for these youth, I think is really the question.

BB: Is it also trying to figure out what is the best way to go about this, the best way to provide the research, what are the resources you should be providing? Is that what the debates are going to be about in the coming months?

TN: I certainly hope so. And that's part of the conversation I'm going to hope to develop throughout the course of the interim. I think what we've learned from best practices and other states is some of those challenges with positive outcomes, you know, reducing recidivism in successful adults, is ensuring that the right resources match to the right offender, right? And so, do they truly need substance abuse [treatment] or not? Do they need mental health treatment or not? You know, some surprising information we learned from the Council of State governments, which I think is important for all of us involved, is even sometimes no intervention at all can lead to the same result. Which is really telling, that we may be investing a lot of resources and a lot of effort when maybe some of these offenders just need some soft guidance from those in their support systems and everything probably will work out just fine, or at least with the same result as if there was judicial intervention.

BB: One of the things that I sort of shake my head at is, I feel like I cover the same issue over and over and over again. There's like seven issues I've ever covered in my life and this is one of them. Why has it taken so long to try and fix this?

TN: Well, I think that question is incorrect, that we're fixing something. I think really the issue that the legislature and what the judicial system is constantly working towards is continuous improvement, right? You can't just solve this issue and it's done, and then the chapter is closed, right? This takes constant and continuous effort and review. And because generations change, the human condition stays the same, but there are different tools and methodology that work better than others and evaluating whether or not we're employing the practices that we believe we are and whether or not we're really getting the outcomes that we hoped to. So I hope you will continue to cover this in the years to come, this is an important topic for all of Wyoming, all of the time. So making sure that we are constantly focused towards continuous improvement and that we're really doing the right work for the people.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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