Wyoming could make long-overdue advances in juvenile justice next year if it’s willing to spend unexpected mineral tax revenues to fix a broken system that has historically locked up young offenders at a higher rate than most other states.
Or we could study the issue like we have for the past half-century, with legislative committees, task forces and consultants pumping out more reports that gather dust, and waste another golden opportunity to turn the lives of at-risk youth around before they are lost to the adult correctional system.
Wyoming has repeatedly settled for piecemeal approaches to complex juvenile justice problems. Recent disturbing reports about increased violence and the use of more physical and mechanical restraints and solitary confinement at the Wyoming Boys’ School in Worland have thrown into relief what’s at stake for the state’s future generations.
It’s a disheartening turn of events for the 108-year-old institution, the last stop in the juvenile detention system for those court-ordered there to hopefully change criminal behavior so they can return to their families, schools and communities.
The Boys’ School is a detention center and reformatory, not a prison. It has three dorms, each housing up to 20 males between 12 and 21 years old. The facility is locked, but boys stay in individual rooms, not cells. However, mandatory buzz haircuts and uniforms create a boot camp-like environment that likely isn’t effective for everyone.
Boys who pose a threat to themselves or others can be held indefinitely in a small cinder-block isolation room containing only a mattress on the floor and a toilet. Officials say “seclusionary holds” are not used for punishment, but that distinction likely doesn’t matter to a youth who is locked up.
A joint investigative series by WyoFile and the Casper Star-Tribune last month detailed problems at the Boys’ School previously undisclosed to lawmakers and the public. Washakie County Sheriff’s Office reports confirmed the agency was increasingly dispatched to the Boys’ School to quell violent incidents in ‘21.
Citing state juvenile privacy laws, the Department of Family Services, which oversees the Boys’ School, declined records requests for incident reports detailing events surrounding the 911 calls, even if information is redacted to protect a youth’s identity. The agency is inexplicably allowed to police itself with no outside oversight.
At a September 2021 Joint Judiciary Committee meeting, Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) asked DFS Director Korin Schmidt what happens when allegations of abuse or mistreatment at the Boys’ School are made. Schmidt said the agency handles them as Child Protective Services cases.
“And then we don’t talk about that,” Schmidt matter-of-factly added. “That’s confidential under the statute.”
How does the state benefit from never disclosing to the public — and legislators responsible for crafting juvenile justice laws — the results of such investigations? It’s wholly irresponsible to pretend it’s an invisible problem with no resolution.
Journalists Tennessee Watson and Victoria Eavis interviewed former Boys’ School staff, residents and parents who claimed the lack of oversight is detrimental to the school’s mission to keep everyone safe.
The school’s highly questionable 2016 purchase of a high-backed “restraint chair” with shoulder, lap, wrist and ankle straps that was used 23 times in 2021 is particularly troubling. Property damage and physical altercations at the facility led sheriff’s deputies to question whether staff was properly trained in using restraints.
Schmidt and Boys’ School Superintendent Dale Weber cite COVID-19-related mental health issues and significant budget cuts as the one-two punch that led to residents’ increased behavioral problems. One dormitory closed, and staff positions were eliminated through attrition.
But former school staff said the increasingly punitive culture that led to the interactions requiring increased police intervention began before the pandemic.
Because the Boys’ School is not a mental health facility, it contracts with Worland’s Cloud Peak Counseling Center to provide therapy and sex offender treatment for residents. It had four therapists at the school, but a $300,000 biennial budget cut for mental health services eliminated two positions.
It’s a serious disruption in essential mental health treatment for a vulnerable population. While Boys’ School residents will continue to be evaluated, DFS said only those deemed to have serious mental health illnesses will receive therapy and psychiatric services.
DFS deserves credit for its emphasis on finding and bolstering community-based mental health services throughout the state, which has been a successful alternative to sending more juvenile offenders to the Boys’ and Girls’ Schools.
But I don’t understand why Gov. Mark Gordon urges improved access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment for everyone who needs it, but didn’t recommend another dime to DFS for these services in his supplemental budget.
If there was ever a time to restore mental health and juvenile justice funds that have been slashed during the last nine years, this is it, but the governor wants half of the state’s nearly $1 billion windfall from higher coal, natural gas and oil prices socked away into savings. Wyoming will have a $3 billion “rainy day fund” next year, the highest amount ever in the account.
Wyoming needs to go all-in in on juvenile justice, particularly when it has already made a promising move to fix a fundamental weakness.
The state has struggled to collect data to ensure youths will receive fair and equal treatment in juvenile courts no matter where they live and provide adequate funding for rehabilitation. Wyoming has also had a difficult time compiling and analyzing such basic information as statewide juvenile recidivism rates.
In 2002, the Legislature passed a law requiring the Division of Criminal Investigation to coordinate with courts to compile juvenile justice data and report back to lawmakers every year. But that never happened.
The courts never turned over the data to DCI, the agency didn’t ask for it and legislators didn’t demand reports. It was a monumental failure as all three branches of state government dropped the ball.
During the 2021 interim, the Joint Judiciary Committee decided to once again make studying the juvenile justice system its top priority. The Legislature passed a bill this year to create a new reporting system many advocates believe is an important step in the right direction, but DFS has until 2024 to establish rules.
It’s gut-check time for the state on this vital issue. Fortunately, use of restraints and solitary confinement at the Boys’ School declined during Fiscal Year 2022.
But progress will be difficult to maintain without a corresponding influx of funds to expand programs. The goal should be to adequately provide resources to support at-risk youth at the local level, mitigating the need for juvenile detention facilities like the Boys’ School.
The state should also make sure the Boys’ School actually is reformatory by training staff to build a positive culture and providing contracted mental health therapy. That would give juvenile offenders a much better shot at improving their lives.