A significant portion of Wyoming’s juveniles were punished with a fine for their offenses in 2019, but experts say that fining is not an effective punishment method.
It was revealed earlier this month that roughly 2,000 kids went through the juvenile justice system in 2019 across 14 of Wyoming’s counties and that over a quarter (about 550) were in the system for status offenses. Of those, children were mostly punished with a fine, Narina Nuñez, a member of the state advisory council on juvenile justice, told the Legislature’s joint judiciary committee.
A status offense is a behavior that’s only punishable because of a person’s status as a child. In other words, if the same person were to perform this act as an adult, it would not be a crime. For example: tobacco, alcohol, curfew violations and truancy.
Of the roughly 550 status offenders, about 350 of them were punished with a fine alone. The status offenses were “overwhelmingly tobacco offenses,” Nuñez said. In Wyoming, these offenses carry a fine of $25, and the legal age is 21 for purchasing or possessing tobacco.
If a juvenile got a fine in addition to another punishment for their actions, they are not counted in these numbers, so although 350 does not sound like a lot of kids, it is a significant portion and a low estimate.
If status offenses are largely addressed with fines, the question becomes whether that method works.
“No, it doesn’t work,” said Nuñez, who is also a psychology professor at the University of Wyoming. “The outcome is not tied to the child. The child needs to have an outcome, not a parent,” she added.
Fines are not an evidence-based practice for juveniles, said Gus Tupper, a clinical teaching fellow at the University of California, Berkeley Law School with a focus on the Mountain West.
“There’s no evidence that fines actually engender accountability or are an effective deterrent or a meaningful punishment,” Tupper said. “Fines and fees are recidivistic.”
Because this data is from 2019, the offenses were classified as “tobacco offenses,” but the state legislature replaced “tobacco” with “nicotine” during the 2020 budget session.
The glaring issue in Wyoming’s juvenile justice system is the lack of compiled or even collected data; it is unclear how much total money was accumulated through status offenses or how the kids’ futures played out after being fined for status offenses.
The joint judiciary committee will meet next on Aug. 30 and 31 in Powell. Nuñez said she would try to arrive with more data in August.
Follow state politics reporter Victoria Eavis on Twitter @Victoria_Eavis