Ain’t No Justice in the System

Wyoming incarcerates more juveniles per capita than any other state—and something needs to be done about it now

  • Published In: Columns
  • Last Updated: Aug 17, 2021

He was only 15 years old when his buddy picked him up outside of town and drove him to the mountains by Big Piney, Wyoming, where he’d camp out alone in a tent for three months. The worst part wasn’t that his dad was an abusive drunk and his mother was into drugs and long gone from his life. It wasn’t even that he was just a kid, alone and afraid. The bad part came when he was taken into police custody for coming back to town three months later to start football practice. The part where he was thrown into the Sublette County jail and then transferred to the Fremont County jail for six months after his dad told the judge he didn’t want his son. That was where it really got bad.

Housed in an adult jail, though charged with no crime, he got maced in the face for having a toothbrush from Sublette that was deemed “contraband” in Fremont County Detention Center by jail officials. He only went to school on a laptop one day a week while guards monitored him pursuant to their policies. Then, he was transferred to Jackson to a high-risk group home for a few months. All of this nightmare happened just because he was so abused, he ran away from home. But the system in Wyoming wouldn’t help him; it only engulfed him and robbed him of his youth. This happened in 2007.

Looking back now, Boone Bowker reflects on what made him become a teacher and coach. He told me in an interview, “I don’t want any other kid to have to experience that. I don’t really know what I did wrong.” He eventually went to Black Hills State University, played football and started a beautiful family. His past is behind him, but like all ghosts, it never really leaves. In most states, a juvenile court would handle these issues, but in Wyoming, adult courts handle most offenses, and the prosecutors hold all the power under a single-entry system, which means they alone get to decide if a minor goes to juvenile or adult court. Detention is a monetary tool when county services are unavailable or inconvenient. The state foots the bill when a child is placed in a jail or group home, so this becomes a lucrative alternative for those housing youth.  

Wyoming incarcerates more juveniles per capita than any other state. The vast majority of children in Wyoming are tried as adults, even for misdemeanors, but the practices by each prosecutor in each county varies widely. Meanwhile, juvenile detention facilities cost our taxpayers millions.

The point of this piece—and the series in this column that will follow weekly—is that there ain’t no justice in the system. Justice doesn’t descend from a person in a black robe with a gavel. I’ve been a prosecutor, I’ve worked for judges, and now I’m a defense attorney, civil litigator and lobbyist. I’ve made a habit of fighting for what’s right, even when it’s not easy. I’ve learned to make noise, even when it’s not convenient or popular. Oftentimes, I’ve found the right thing is really hard. But I believe we are not called to an easy life; we’re called to one that is worthwhile. You see, we’re all one thing that breathes and moves and ebbs and flows.

What I’ve realized, especially in my time as a public defender, is that the worst of us usually isn’t all that different from the best of us. We’ve all been about a half step away from the biggest mistake of our life. Most of the folks that victimize others were once the worst kind of victim you can possibly imagine. I’ll never unsee the things I’ve seen or unhear the stories I’ve listened to. From grown men crying in holding cells to young women wrongfully accused and fighting for their lives, I often joke my hair is so big because it’s full of secrets. Some sad, some beautiful, but all worth learning from. I’ll tell you more of those tales as time goes on.

I believe we need to fundamentally change the juvenile justice system in Wyoming. It’s full of bureaucrats and decision-makers controlling the lives of our youth in a detached vacuum, while politicians and appointees ruin their chances at prosperity. Judges in our state rely on the talking heads because they are the so-called experts and offer little more than a rubber stamp to these decisions. 

Our joint judiciary committee in the Wyoming legislature met in mid-June about juvenile justice. Many of these lawmakers have a day job as an attorney, law enforcement officer, or prosecutor. As I sat there observing the proceedings, I felt a wave of disappointment. How many delinquent children come before our single-point-of-entry prosecutors in our state? We don’t know. What we do know is that the average stay of boys at the Boys’ School detention center is 7.5 months; for girls, it is 8.9 months. Meanwhile, their developing brains are traumatized, they are uprooted from their families, and an unknown number of them have significant mental health issues, which remain largely untracked and unserved by these detention facilities; they lack mental health programming. The cost per child is based on the census, and the state pays a flat fee to cover the cost.  

We have a state advisory council on juvenile justice, which sent a representative to testify to the committee, but what are they really doing? They have no sense of direction to offer the committee. They would not discuss statutory changes stating that they had never been asked to. They had no sense of the actual numbers or data. They are not following the statute because they haven’t been asked to but stated work on their statutory duty would be a “wonderful thing to do,” according to Dr. Narina Nunez, their testifying representative who holds a doctorate in psychology. It was appalling. A state senator asked point blank, “Should the council continue?” The answer was apparent despite the two-stepping that followed. This do-nothing council, created in 1997, took 24 years at $25,000 per year to come up with a data system that is nonfunctional by their own account.  

The council testified that there is a significant increase in kids with mental health issues entering the system. This is a growing problem in our state that remains unaddressed while our youth suicide rate is among the highest in the country, and we have no facilities or placements in the communities to service this population–kids who are at high risk to commit another crime or kill themselves. The council spokesman, Dr. Nunez, said we have a youth “mental health crisis” but added it’s likely always been a problem for which we couldn’t measure progress because of a lack of data.

State Senator Tara Nethercott, a Cheyenne Republican, gave her “candid assessment,” stating, “there is an entity that has been in existence for 24 years that was statutorily tasked and has federal funding to create a data collection point, and we have a baby step in that direction. We can’t wait another 24 years so we’re going to have to come up with a different strategy.” Measurable outcomes are key. We can’t accomplish this without data about who these kids are and what is happening to them.

When our kids are struggling, detained and separated from their families during their formative years, we struggle as a community. Bureaucrats shouldn’t control their lives in a vacuum. Diversion programs that are sustainable and funded are critical. A complete revamp of the law is necessary. We all could’ve been 15-year-old Boone if dealt a slightly different hand. Thankfully, he “overcame those hardships” in the words of his wife. But many kids aren’t so fortunate. It’s time to let our children shoot the moon, not die waiting for a failed system to save them.

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