COVID-19 poses a challenge for Wyoming's juvenile justice system. Secure juvenile detention facilities in Laramie, Natrona, Campbell and Sweetwater counties typically serve the entire state. However, starting in March those facilities placed restrictions on the out-of-county juveniles they would detain, a measure taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Albany County, which doesn't have its own facility, can no longer send juveniles over to Laramie County's juvenile detention center. That leaves Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent with limited options for juveniles deemed to be a danger to the community.
"So that was very concerning and alarming to me, but we have a lot of practices in Albany County so we were able to move through it," said Trent.
A juvenile deemed a public safety risk could end up in the Albany County jail as long as there is separation from the adults there. But Trent said that's the worst case scenario. When possible, she said she's using alternatives to detention like GPS ankle monitors. She said interventions to support at-risk youth at this time are critical to keep them out of the system altogether.
Trent said the pandemic has forced counties and the state to consider how to better serve juvenile offenders locally.
Craig Fisgus agreed that COVID-19 is helping to expose weaknesses and surface innovations. He runs a program for Volunteers of America that monitors Wyoming's juvenile detention centers.
"If it helps counties to develop new processes and protocols to use non-secure alternatives in lieu of detention-it's been a challenge for sure, but if there was a silver lining that would be it," Fisgus said.
His advice to counties is to "only use detention for the kids you're scared of, and not the kids you're mad at." But for the rare juvenile who poses a danger to the community, Fisgus said that the local adult jail might be the only option for some communities during the pandemic. Federal guidelines discourage the practice, but Fisgus said he reached out to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice for guidance and is awaiting a response.