Q&A: Locked up kids and government transparency in Wyoming

From now until the 2022 legislative session, the Joint Judiciary Committee  will study the state’s handling of kids who run into legal trouble with an eye toward improving Wyoming’s juvenile justice system. 

Judiciary Chairwoman Sen. Tara Nethercott and her cochair, Rep. Jared Olsen — both Cheyenne attorneys and Republicans — explained the stakes in frank terms in a letter nominating the topic to the Wyoming Legislature’s Management Council. 

“Wyoming has one of the highest rates of youthful confinement in the nation,” the letter read. “Youth confinement is one of the largest expenditures for (the) Department of Family Services.”

In fact, Wyoming locks up kids at a rate higher than any other state in the nation, and has had high juvenile incarceration rates for years. 

Just weeks before the request to the Management Council, former Wyoming Public Media education reporter Tennessee Watson thrust the issue — and its dire consequences — into the national spotlight with an hour-long episode of the national investigative podcast Reveal. For the report, Watson spent the better part of a year-long Abrams Nieman Fellowship for Local Investigative Journalism digging into why so many Wyoming kids end up behind bars; what the human, financial and societal costs are of so much childhood incarceration; and what could be done to improve outcomes for at-risk kids, their families and the state.

Did the national attention that came with her work influence the Judiciary Committee’s decision? Watson would never say so, but we suspect it at least played a part.

WyoFile’s former statehouse reporter Andrew Graham video chatted Watson to discuss her reporting, what she learned about juvenile justice and government transparency in Wyoming and what lessons the podcast holds for judiciary committee members starting their review.

If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, we recommend you spend the 53 minutes with that first. This in-depth Q&A isn’t going anywhere.

AG: Your podcast told the story of Larissa Salazar, who you describe as a 16-year-old girl with long brown hair and a nose ring who was very loving to her family but had a rebellious side. Something that, as you note in the podcast, is not unusual for kids dealing with a lot of trauma, which Salazar was. After getting entangled in Wyoming’s juvenile justice system, including two trips to the Wyoming Girls School, Salazar died by suicide. Though you focused on Salazar, I know hers wasn’t the only story you spent time with. Tell me about some of the sources who didn’t end up in your podcast. 

TW: I spent time with three other kids who had been involved in the juvenile justice system. Suicidal ideation was a part of all of their stories. They had stories about their friends as well. Their parents said ‘yeah, I see this happening to other kids and other families as well.’ They were seeing patterns and relaying that to me. So, no, [Salazar] wasn’t a one off. Larissa’s story just was very representative of what I was hearing over and over and over again.

AG: You report in your podcast that in Wyoming, “there’s no way to track whether kids are being rehabilitated or not.” Why is the state flying blind on juvenile justice outcomes and has anyone set out to address this before the current judiciary committee?

TW: There’s a really great Wyoming law review article by a legal scholar named John Burman. He passed away but in writing about Wyoming’s juvenile justice system, he said ‘It’s not a system at all. It’s a maze.’

What I found in my reporting was that there is no overarching data system tracking outcomes for kids. We don’t know if our system works. But the fact that we have the highest incarceration rate in the country suggests it doesn’t.

There is a State Advisory Council on juvenile justice, which is a governor-appointed counsel. They don’t necessarily lobby or advocate for specific juvenile justice policy, but they work in the field and it’s composed of long-standing advocates for kids: educators, social workers, and there’s even prosecutors, so it’s a mixture of stakeholders who are thinking about juvenile justice in the state. One of their long-standing initiatives — going on 10 years — has been to try and create a statewide database. They’ve really prioritized that as a way to shape good policy. How can we figure out what works in the state, let alone hold what doesn’t work accountable, if we’re not collecting data on juvenile justice outcomes?

AG: It took a fair amount of your reporting effort just to learn there wasn’t good data on kids in the Wyoming juvenile justice system. Can you offer readers an insight into what that reporting was like, and what it says about transparency and accountability in Wyoming government? 

TW: I knew that the Wyoming Supreme Court is supposed to house all of this data from all the county courts, and so I made a public records request to them. They rejected my request. They cited a lack of time and resources. I basically wanted them to look at how juveniles enter the courts, for what kind of offenses and then what happens. And they weren’t able to provide that to me. 

So that was my first indication that this was going to be hard.

I considered going to individual courts in all of the counties to gather data, but those courts are not actively tracking juvenile justice data. So you call up a clerk and say ‘hey I want to know how juvenile cases move through your court.’ Well they say: ‘You’re going to have to give me names. I can’t go year by year and figure out who is under 18 at the time.’ 

I then toyed with the idea of going to individual county attorneys and asking them, ‘how are you moving kids through these courts?’ I put feelers out and was met with mixed reviews, but basically they all told me that because they don’t have a database and no one at the state asks for that information, they would have to go back through paper files. No one’s asking them what the outcomes are, that’s not a requirement, so they’re not tracking it.

AG: How frustrating was this pursuit?

TW: It was frustrating. 

Nothing was at the tip of anybody’s fingertips. I was trying to figure out recidivism rates. That’s not easily available. I wanted to know high-school graduation rates for kids in the justice system… not easily available. I asked the Department of Corrections if they could provide data on how many in the adult prison population had prior experience in the juvenile justice system… Anecdotally, they say it’s high, but they don’t collect that data. 

I couldn’t tell you how many states could provide that easily but I do know that it is available in a lot of states. 

(Watson was never able to acquire a recidivism rate for children in the Wyoming juvenile justice system, or a high-school graduation rate.)

AG: You interviewed Gov. Mark Gordon for your podcast, and he leaned on the principle of “local control” when you asked him about pressuring counties to perform better on juvenile justice. But there’s a flaw in that argument, as you pointed out — the state pays for juvenile detention, not counties. Did you find any evidence that the governor is focused on tackling these juvenile justice issues given a rising cost for taxpayers, not to mention a poor national reputation on how the state treats troubled kids?

TW: He framed it as an important conversation we need to have in the state. There is definitely a big focus right now within the Department of Family Services about shifting to more community-based programs and trying to diminish the number of kids who end up placed in institutions. 

I will add that in Gordon’s (2021) State of the State Address he had one line about the issue. He said the state is trying to figure out ways to better serve high-needs kids in their communities. 

AG: The Joint Judiciary Committee has made juvenile justice its primary interim topic. What is the history of legislative looks at this topic and who have been the players? 

TW: There was a big push for change around 2010 or 2011. My sense of that history is that there were county prosecutors across the state who liked local control. They didn’t want to report out more data, they didn’t want anybody telling them what the best practices were. They made a really strong case to the Legislature that juvenile justice reform wasn’t necessary. They were successful. And I think that generation of people who were advocating for change are pretty burned out from trying.

I think shame and stigma plays a role too. We’re still talking about kids who’ve gotten in trouble. Do people trust those kids and their families when they say that they feel like they’ve been wronged by the system? I think it’s hard to advocate for yourself when you’ve already been labeled as bad. That could be part of why we don’t see people lined up at the Legislature calling for change. 

AG: So what questions should members of the Joint Judiciary Committee ask if they take on juvenile justice reform?

TW: Because I know reform was shut down previously by county prosecutors, I think that there needs to be a conversation with those attorneys about their attitudes about juvenile justice, the struggles that they’re having on the ground and what resources they need. And I don’t just mean at the point where the kid shows up with the violation and the county attorney is responding to that. 

What resources do counties need upstream? What would help keep kids out of trouble altogether? One of the things in South Dakota that I saw was this strong collaboration with schools. So really trying to interrupt the school to prison pipeline. Justice reform in that state looked at things like school discipline and how schools are a force for pushing kids into the courts, and how all those entities can collaborate better. I do think that Gov. Gordon has a point, which is starting with a conversation and really gathering information from people on a county level about what the challenges are like. Lawmakers should ask county officials: ‘Why are you having a hard time keeping kids out of trouble?’ and they should try to take as holistic an approach to that question as possible.

By the time a kid is in legal trouble, we’ve already missed opportunities.

AG: I’m thinking about adult justice reform. After a lot of setbacks, lawmakers passed an ambitious package of reforms in 2018 in hopes of heading off projected increases to the prison population, and associated costs to taxpayers. But lawmakers and the governor immediately started hamstringing those reform programs through budget cuts, because Wyoming is fiscally unstable. So are there fixes to juvenile justice that won’t cost money? 

TW: I’m looking to South Dakota to answer this question. That’s the last part of my podcast episode with Reveal. South Dakota saved themselves money by shifting to a more community-based system. 

South Dakota’s version of the Boys and Girls School… it closed. They spent about $6 million to expand access to mental health and substance abuse treatment across the state, using a combination of face-to-face treatment and telemedicine. So there was that infusion of money. But on top of that lawmakers incentivized counties to try and keep kids out of the courts whenever possible, and steered them toward diversion programs. 

So, how did that impact their juvenile corrections budget? It was around $30 million before the reforms. Since the reforms were implemented it has stayed between $11 million and $15 million. It’s about shifting how the money gets spent. At first it may require that Wyoming spends more, but what a lot of other states have seen is that after that initial investment and reallocation in funds, they end up saving money. 

My best guess about how much Wyoming spends a year on juvenile confinement is $20 million. There’s definitely an opportunity for the state to save money on juvenile detention. 

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