Over the past year, NCYL has been working with a group of diverse stakeholders in Wyoming to significantly reform juvenile justice practices in that state.
Unlike any other state, Wyoming commonly prosecutes children as adults, often imposing adult sentences for normal adolescent misbehavior. The majority of children in trouble with the law in Wyoming are being processed through adult courts, where they become saddled with adult criminal convictions. Children as young as 8 years old are being criminally prosecuted in adult court for such minor offenses as stealing a pack of gum.
System reformers in Wyoming have teamed up with NCYL to draft a revised juvenile code based on national best practices to change this and other long-standing problems with the state’s juvenile system. The primary goals of the code revisions are to 1) create a single unified system of juvenile courts with judges trained in adolescent development and juvenile law; 2) reduce the use of adult courts to prosecute juvenile offenses; 3) create a system that relies more on community-based interventions and uses incarceration as a last resort; and 4) create a data collection system in order to ensure this data is used to drive policy decisions.
As a result of this work, and at the request Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee has decided to study juvenile justice issues during its interim session and to explore the creation of a juvenile court system that provides exclusive original jurisdiction in juvenile, not adult, courts and relies less on incarceration and more on community-based alternatives for youth in conflict with the law.
In Wyoming, 85 to 90 percent of the youth who get in trouble with the law are prosecuted in the state’s adult criminal courts. These youth are subject to adult criminal penalties even for status offenses like skipping school or drinking alcohol. These youth end up with adult criminal records that can later affect their ability to secure housing, get educational loans, or find employment.
Only a small percentage of juvenile cases in Wyoming are handled in juvenile courts, which have many more resources than adult court to address the underlying reasons for a child’s problem behavior, and to support children and families get the help they need. Moreover, each of Wyoming’s 23 counties has a different way of processing juvenile cases, which leads to disparate and irrational practices across the state based solely on where the child lives.
In a report released June 1, 2010, NCYL and the ACLU criticized Wyoming’s policy of allowing each of the state’s 23 county prosecutors to develop criteria for deciding which juveniles to try in adult court. A review of case files and hearings in six Wyoming counties shows that juveniles frequently plead guilty to charges without being told what the consequences are of doing so – and sometimes wind up in jail because of their pleas.