Wyoming officials knew something was seriously wrong with the state’s juvenile justice system in 1970, when a governor’s committee examined the issue and came to the startling conclusion that no system actually existed.

“It is clear that there is no uniformity in the disposition of matters involving juveniles at the local level,” the panel’s report concluded. “Change has been slow to come.”

The ink from that document could be fresh today. The Legislature has undertaken piecemeal attempts at juvenile justice reform in the past half-century, but two 2021 facts underscore the state’s abject failure to address the issue. 

First, Wyoming now has the highest rate of juvenile incarceration in the nation. 

Second, the Joint Judiciary Committee has made studying juvenile justice reform its No. 1 priority for the 2021 interim. It wouldn’t top the list if Wyoming was making progress at finding solutions.

I’m glad to see the issue taken seriously yet again, but decades of watching committees on juvenile justice make recommendations that simply gather dust on shelves have left me jaded.

When Wyoming passes laws that create a uniform system ensuring all at-risk youth are treated equally in the courts, I’ll celebrate in honor of the many people who have devoted a multitude of hours to the cause.

But what I’m hearing at the beginning of this latest discussion doesn’t leave me brimming with optimism. Warning signs are flashing that Wyoming may be going down the same path again, all in the name of that cherished (when politically expedient) state institution called “local control.”

Tennessee Watson, a former Wyoming Public Radio education reporter who spent the past year investigating juvenile justice problems in the state, produced a compelling report for the nationally syndicated podcast “Reveal.” She asked Gov. Mark Gordon what the state can do to improve how the system treats kids.

The governor called it “an evolving issue” that needs a statewide conversation. It’s evolving in the sense that it’s still getting worse, and that definitely merits talking about the issue. But the state has studied and batted around ideas for years to fix countless problems — from restructuring the tax system to diversifying its economy — without satisfactory results.

Gordon said juvenile justice has been dealt with on a local level. However, it’s the state that picks up the tab for incarceration, treatment programs and  out-of-county and out-of-state psychiatric institutions. That’s expensive.

“We’re a local control state,” Gordon said. “That’s always sort of been the tradition there [with juvenile justice].”

Indeed, as Watson reported, very little state oversight exists for what happens to at-risk youth, including those who have already committed crimes and gone to court. Even if a county wants to create programs to keep kids at home and out of jail or shipped out of state, the state provides little funding or accountability.

“Counties aren’t forced to measure if they are actually helping kids,” the reporter said. The answer for some counties is to send youth away at the state’s expense, and hope that whatever institution is dealing with their problems somehow fixes them.

“Out of sight, out of mind” isn’t an answer. Unfortunately, that was how Sweetwater County and the state handled the case of Larissa Salazar, a 16-year-old girl whose story was chronicled by Watson.

At 13, Salazar was sexually assaulted by a relative of a friend, which set off a tragic series of events. She was bullied by students who blamed her for what happened. When Salazar retaliated by punching one of her tormentors in the mouth, she was arrested for battery, given a six-month sentence and placed on probation.

The teen was ordered to take drug tests, even though she was not arrested for substance abuse. She told her parents she was tired of being treated like a criminal, and attempted suicide with an overdose of pills.

After being sent to the Wyoming Behavioral Institute in Casper, Salazar started serving her sentence at the Wyoming Girls School in Sheridan. She reportedly made progress, including in her schoolwork, but after returning home she was caught violating parole again, this time for sneaking out of the house and drinking alcohol.

Sent back to the Girls School, Salazar began self-mutilation. After being away from home for a total of 16 months, when Salazar returned she fell behind in school and went to counseling for depression. Her mother tried to ask her probation officer to “ease off” her daughter and let the troubled girl know she was doing well, but got no response.

Two days later, Salazar killed herself.

For me, one of the most chilling parts of Watson’s podcast was her interview with probation officers who worked on Salazar’s case.

“She was a good kid and it was terrible what happened,” one agent said. “… A lot of parents say, ‘You’re putting a lot of stress on my kid and my family.’ I don’t know how else to say this and I don’t want to sound rude, but we didn’t put you here.”

Yes, it’s unfair to place the blame for Salazar’s death on any parole officer, judge, counselor or institution. But there’s no comfort in knowing that the way Wyoming handles juvenile justice problems failed her, and ultimately contributed to the circumstances that led to her death.

Watson learned that Wyoming doesn’t track even the basics that most other states do in order to judge whether their systems are working. The Equality State can’t tell its residents what the juvenile recidivism rate is, or the graduation rate for incarcerated kids, or how many adult offenders in prison committed crimes as youths. 

Each of the state’s 23 counties handles cases differently when a youth is accused of a crime. Where a juvenile lives — and whether officials have enough money to fund needed community programs or let the state pick up the tab for sending them away — shouldn’t determine one’s fate.

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There’s too much at stake. We can’t keep raising generations of people whose lives become worse once they get into trouble with the law, especially when it’s for minor infractions. Rehabilitation should be the goal of any criminal justice system, but many counties don’t have the financial resources to offer vital services to at-risk young people.

How many people are now serving lengthy prison sentences after committing an offense, violating probation or parole and ending back in a cell learning from other inmates how to be a better criminal?

In a 2004 Wyoming Law Review article, University of Wyoming Law Professor John Burman described the state’s juvenile justice system as “a maze that is virtually impossible to navigate.”

“The only avenue generally available is punishment, even if the court determines that treatment would be more appropriate,” Burman wrote.

I see a parallel with another systemic problem Wyoming has greatly improved over the years: the ability to offer an equitable, quality education regardless of a school district’s financial resources. It took lengthy legal battles to get where we are today, and sometimes the threat of more lawsuits is all that keeps legislators from making draconian cuts to school budgets.

School districts receive a block grant to provide services. They still have local control, but the state requires them to deliver a “basket of goods” — the educational resources each student needs to have a chance to succeed.

Can we do the same thing with our juvenile justice system, and transform it from a maze into a stable method of creating a safe, law-abiding path for youth? We can save the lives of students like Salazar, and can’t afford to keep wasting our opportunities.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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