Lawmakers are exploring ways to lock up fewer children

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Wyoming’s juvenile justice system places juvenile offenders in institutions at rates nearly double the national average. Influenced by research showing that juvenile incarceration leads to poor outcomes for children, lawmakers are taking steps to curtail the practice with a bill to collect more data and budget amendments to restore funding for prevention efforts .

Data gathering

Wyoming does not currently collect statewide juvenile justice data. The resulting information vacuum creates vexing blind spots for policy makers and practitioners and could lead to state funding programs that do not help children or improve public safety. To change this, House Bill 37 – Juvenile Justice Data Report requires the Department of Family Services to standardize data collection.

Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie)

The bill passed the House on Wednesday with several amendments. One is providing $251,848 to fund a full-time position to oversee data collection and $450,000 to cover upgrades to the ministry’s data system. Another allows the DFS to track recidivism rates from the juvenile system to the adult system, with the goal of implementing programs that prevent children from recidivism as adults. This amendment by Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) also addresses lawmaker concerns about a lack of oversight and requires the DFS to report on the implementation of data collection to the Joint Judiciary Committee in October. House Bill 37 was introduced in the Senate on Thursday and is due for consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Prevention programming

Lawmakers are also working to restore funding to Community Juvenile Services Boards, which fall under a DFS program designed to help communities provide programs to keep children out of the justice system. The CJSB program was eliminated as part of Governor Mark Gordon’s $250 million statewide budget cuts in 2020.

A $1.2 million budget amendment in the Senate restores funding to the CJSBs. A measure from the House, meanwhile, could expand the program. Prior to the governor’s cuts, CJSBs only operated in 14 counties. A budget amendment made by Reps. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie), and Art Washut (R-Casper), allocates $3 million to expand the program to all 23 counties.

Speaking in support of the $3 million amendment, Connolly informed lawmakers of the positive impact of the Albany County CJSB. “In the last year it existed in 2020, 129 children were involved, and the recidivism rate for those 129 children was 0%,” Connolly said. “This is a program that works, and I strongly urge us to vote in favor of this amendment and get these programs back up and running.”

Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) during the 2022 legislative session. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

The House amendment also mentions the need to reform the operation of the CJSBs. When Zwonitzer spoke in favor of the bill in the House, he acknowledged that there had been “a few little wrangles over funding and administration fees” in the past. In an email to WyoFile, Zwonitzer confirmed that he would like to see increased oversight to ensure that public funds distributed to counties by DFS are used to implement effective programming.

DFS is on board with the composition of the program, according to Lindsey Schilling, senior administrator of social services, the DFS division responsible for juvenile justice. The plan is “to use funding available immediately to stabilize existing programs and to work with programs over the next 12 to 18 months to make improvements both to the agency’s administration of the program, but also to the data collection and range of services within each program,” Schilling wrote in an email.

“None of the additional funds would stay with DFS – it would all go to support programs, counties and providers,” Schilling added.

Restoring the CJSBs will help facilitate statewide data collection required by HB 37, Schilling said.

“I believe the additional amount of money in the request was intended to support technical assistance for non-participating counties (hoping to get them to a place where they could create more formal infrastructure and join the program more wide),” Schilling wrote. .

There is a $1.8 million gap between the Senate and House proposals, but Schilling says the DFS is discussing both possibilities with juvenile justice actors across the state.

“If funded, I think we have a good roadmap to follow,” Schilling said.

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