Wyoming is locking up fewer juveniles, but still ranks near the top of the nation in youth confinement, a new report shows.
The state saw a 12 percent drop in its youth confinement rate between 1997 and 2010, according to a report released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The nation as a whole saw a 37 percent decline over the same period.
Even with the decrease, Wyoming still puts youth in confinement at a higher rate than all other states but South Dakota. Wyoming had a youth confinement rate nearly twice the national average, the report shows.
The data comes from a survey conducted every two years by the U.S. Census Bureau. It counted young people housed at long-term facilities, detention centers and shelters.
Wyoming has long had a reputation for relying too heavily on secure detention to deal with young offenders. A report released two years ago by the foundation showed Wyoming led the nation in 2007 in jailing juveniles.
The state has worked to develop community-based alternative programs that emphasize rehabilitation over punishment. But today’s report shows the state could be doing more to reduce its reliance on detention, said Marc Homer, who works on juvenile justice issues for the Wyoming Children’s Action Alliance.
Alternative programs will result in fewer repeat offenders while saving the state money, Homer said.
“There is no reason to delay,” he said. “There is no further question about what works and what does not. And I think we should be part of the national trend in terms of deinstitutionalizing kids and finding the solutions that work for them.”
Homer acknowledged Wyoming has made some progress. But he insists state leaders can make additional changes that will improve the system.
“It is going to take an effort to reduce course on a larger scale,” he said.
The report advises states to invest in promising alternatives to jailing kids, while limiting which young people are eligible for incarceration. It also recommends small, treatment-oriented facilities over large institutions.
Wyoming has in the recent past implemented a number of reforms designed to improve its juvenile justice system, said state Department of Family Services spokesman Tony Lewis. They include local boards that help communities develop program for young people who run afoul of the law. The state has also instituted a standardized evaluation tool to keep low-risk juveniles out of jail.
Many of those changes took effect toward the end of the 13-year period included in the study, Lewis explained.
“There has been an increasing focus to get out and assess kids so you know what is going on with them,” he said.
A report released last year by another group that monitors juvenile justice found Wyoming saw a 27 percent decline in the use of secure detention between 2006 and 2010. The survey also showed more than half of the state’s counties were complying with federal guidelines designed to protect juveniles.
Craig Fisgus is division director for Volunteers of America Northern Rockies, the Sheridan-based group that published the report. He’s not sure why his group and the Annie E. Casey Foundation found different declines. The two groups did use different data sets and definitions of what constitutes “confinement,” he noted.
“They have a little broader focus,” he said.
Fisgus has also observed improvement in Wyoming’s juvenile justice system. The number of juvenile arrests has dropped, and most counties now have a diversionary program in place, he said.
But he worries some of those programs could be in jeopardy if funding becomes scarcer. His group hopes less reliance on secure detention will free up dollars for alternative services. It can cost the state around $200 a day to house a kid in secure detention, Fisgus noted.
“That’s money that can be spent on a county-run diversionary program,” he said.