Friday Focus: Founder of Wyoming Children’s Law Center Warns Against Partisan Approach to Juvenile Justice (Part 1)

Donna Sheen supports data collection, science-based approaches to help children with unique needs

By David Dudley

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Wyoming had the fourth highest juvenile incarceration rate in the nation in 2019,  locking up 239 out of every 100,000 juveniles that year—outranked by Washington, D.C., West Virginia and Alaska—according to the latest Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement report.

That’s significant, as the U.S. incarcerates more youth than any other country in the world. Donna Sheen, child welfare specialist and attorney, has worked for the past 21 years to change that statistic.

As the mother of a son with special needs, Sheen said that advocating for her child inspired her to advocate for other youth as well. Fresh out of the University of Wyoming College of Law in 2001, she joined the Wyoming Department of Family Services and worked on a review of Title 14, Wyoming’s Juvenile Statutes.

Donna Sheen, founder of the Wyoming Children’s Law Center in Laramie, supports data collection and science-based approaches to help children with unique needs. (Courtesy photo from Donna Sheen) 

The statutes set forth guidelines for Wyoming’s juvenile court process and requirements for those involved in child welfare, juvenile justice and juvenile courts. While studying the statutes, Sheen realized many youth in the juvenile justice system were children with disabilities whose education needs weren’t being met.

In 2009, Sheen founded the Laramie-based Wyoming Children’s Law Center, which focuses on law, children’s legal needs in special education, education services and the juvenile justice system. In 2018, she received a Women of Influence Award (non-profit category) from the Wyoming Business Report.

Sheen recently spoke with the Wyoming Truth about the state of juvenile justice in Wyoming. What follows are excerpts from the first part of the conversation.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact juvenile crime in Wyoming?

Sheen: I don’t know that we know. I don’t think we gather enough data in Wyoming to be able to answer that question fully. Generally speaking, we know that it created more mental health issues for our children nationally. The isolation probably interfered with some really important years of development for many young people. They were isolated at a time when they really needed more interaction.

Has that led to an increase, or decrease, in youth crime rates?

Sheen: The data that we do have is telling us that there were probably fewer prosecutions, because there was less opportunity to see kids doing bad things. Everybody was more isolated.

My understanding is that Wyoming is struggling to record and share data. Is that the case?

Sheen: The problem with data is the problem with our juvenile justice system. It’s hard to gather statistics when you have children treated in so many different ways, in so many different systems. There’s no one system that collects all that information.

I think that we took a step in the right direction when we passed House Bill 0037 last year. The Department of Family Services is working on a data system that will collect more information about these youth, even if they are in different systems. So, we’ll know more about what’s actually happening across the state in terms of which kids are in which courts, what their consequences are in those courts, and whether diversion is available.

What’s your appraisal of juvenile justice in Wyoming right now?

Sheen: We have an unjust juvenile justice system in Wyoming. It’s really harsh on youth and doesn’t afford all children the same opportunities. There are a lot of different practices that have evolved in different jurisdictions across Wyoming. It’s justice by jurisdiction. Justice depends a lot on where you live and what the people running the system in that jurisdiction decide on how children should be treated.

You mentioned that there’s a problem with Wyoming Juvenile Statutes. Can you be more specific?

Sheen: Statute 14.623 establishes the jurisdiction of juvenile courts in Wyoming. That statute gives district attorneys, or county attorneys, the ability to use any court to prosecute a juvenile. Sometimes, the arresting department will determine what court youth end up in.

Why is that a problem?

Sheen: Essentially, the problem with our statute is that almost anything is allowed. So there are no real guardrails to protect children in our juvenile justice system. Generally speaking, I think it’s important to divert as many youth as possible from formal court systems. The research is pretty clear: Those systems aren’t typically helpful for youth. You can incarcerate or divert a child, but still not help with changing their behavior.

And this is where arrest rates come in. Wyoming led the nation in drug-related arrests in 2020, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Should we arrest young people who are wrestling with addiction?

Sheen: That can be a function of how strict we are in enforcing laws, right? We know that a lot of kids experiment with drugs and alcohol, and it doesn’t always cause a problem in their life. But if each time we uncover it, we charge them with a crime, we’ll have a higher crime rate than other states.

So I think the question is, “How many children are we seeing that need treatment for substance abuse disorders? And will they be better served by getting treatment than by being arrested?”

Another crazy thing we do is we charge kids with a crime for becoming addicted to nicotine. I mean, we should be trying to prevent that, number one, and then we should be treating those youth who become exposed to it, because it’s a very difficult habit to break.

Check back tomorrow for part two.

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