Criminal Justice Should Be About People, Not Power

Natrona County prosecutors offer a snapshot of growing challenges they face

An uptick in violent crime, cuts in funding for victim witness coordinators and a successful youth program. These were some key takeaways for the Joint Appropriations Committee of our Wyoming Legislature when they heard budget requests from the Natrona County Prosecutor’s office last month.

First, the bad news. Natrona County prosecutors described a rise in violent crime. This county includes Casper, which used to record one homicide a year and now averages three to four annually. A majority of these homicides are domestic in nature. It could be a familial relationship. Similarly, prosecutors told legislators that aggravated assaults are on the rise.

The committee heard evidence that the increase in drug charges is striking in Natrona County. Prosecutors pointed to a recent bust in which a suspect was caught with 73 pounds of methamphetamines. One prosecutor stated, “On a backroad in the middle of Natrona County, that is shocking.” Drug cases consume one-third of the office’s time, according to the prosecutors who work there.

They also discussed how the county’s victim witness coordinator grant was cut, and that it will undermine prosecutors’ ability to adhere to the state-mandated victim bill of rights. That guarantees crime victims are made aware of certain services, such as counseling and possible restitution. The victim bill of rights also requires that crime victims are kept informed about how the case is proceeding. The grant funded a victim witness coordinator in the prosecutors’ office, but that position has been eliminated.

The victim bill of rights includes critical pieces of our justice system to ensure that victims are “treated with compassion, respect, and sensitivity within the criminal justice system.”

The absence of this program will have detrimental consequences to our state.

The victim bill of rights is the crux of a criminal justice system that is about people, not just power. If prosecutors’ budgets continue to be cut, we will have the shell of a system that focuses only on bottom lines and the most violent of offenses.

Amid all these growing problems facing the legal system in Natrona County, legislative members did hear about a program that’s continuing to make a positive difference for juveniles in Natrona County: the Student Court Program.

This diversion program offers youths an alternative to a dead-end life. When teenagers have run-ins with the law and are at risk to not graduate, the Student Court Program provides services to help them earn a diploma. If the child successfully completes the program, the district attorney moves to expunge the child’s record, meaning they also graduate with a clean slate.

The ideas behind this program reflect what Wyoming has historically lacked. Youths are not simply punished and incarcerated under the Student Court Program model. Instead, they are offered a holistic approach that is not handed to them, but instead relies upon their investment in themselves. Counseling and other services are usually detached from our system, but they are a part of this program. That’s vital for success because mental health and underlying issues are often the root causes behind addiction and truancy.

The governor and lawmakers should support these types of programs as we so often hear about the need to keep young adults, who may go to college or work out of state and never return to Wyoming. The governor has been a champion of technical education to keep students from seeking employment in neighboring states. It is time to start these initiatives at the ground level of high school and help those at highest risk. This program has the ability to turn the life of a child around.

The Student Court Program’s ability to expunge the record of the youth is vital. So many youths in our state need a fresh start, and an expungement offers this. Under our law, anyone can petition a court for an expungement of criminal charges so long as certain statutory factors are met. These include the lack of a violent felony, the passage of the statutory period (depending upon the crime) and the consent of the prosecutor. However, this process also requires an attorney and the payment of hefty court fees. The cost can quickly escalate, providing yet another barrier where those of a lower socioeconomic status are hindered from success because of systemic flaws.

Expungements are important because they eliminate the crimes from a background check. Background checks are often required for rental agreements and employment. I’ve represented many clients who experienced discrimination while trying to seek employment or a home and had petty charges, such as shoplifting or breaching the peace on their record. Unfortunately, it is a circular problem: You cannot afford an expungement until you get a job, but you oftentimes cannot get a job until your record is clean.

Programs such as the victim witness coordinator and the Student Court Program are critical to restoring the power to the people, which is what our Wyoming and U.S. constitutions require. We are not a nation of laws that are only to be carried out with retribution. We should focus on speaking for the voiceless and treating the neediest of us. Criminal justice must be about so much more than just punishment and power.

The testimony from the Natrona County prosecutor’s office uncovered some startling trends and a peek behind the curtain of what cuts are being made and why. This testimony must give us all pause and should encourage those in power to act in accordance with the victim bill of rights, which pointedly accepts “compassion” and “sensitivity” as key components to our process. We must preserve the key element of humanization while enacting powerful programing statewide. The Student Court Program in Natrona County provides one example of how it can be done.

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