Wyoming Finally Looks to Collect Juvenile Justice Data, Possibly in 2024

Key issues, including funding, must be solved by legislature

Donna Sheen (at right), director of the Wyoming Children's Law Center, says that until the state creates a data collection system for juvenile justice, leaders will not be able to evaluate which programs are working and which ones are failing the state's youths. At left is Katie Osten, the law center's staff attorney. (Photo by Mandy Ludtke for the Wyoming Truth)

By Walter Ko

Special to the Wyoming Truth

A group of Wyoming legislators say they will support a draft bill in next year’s session to improve juvenile justice by introducing a statewide data reporting system on how juveniles in trouble are treated.

Activists have claimed for years that a lack of data is a crucial problem for Wyoming, which had the third-highest juvenile incarceration rate in the nation, according to 2019 data from the Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement report compiled by the National Center for Juvenile Justice. It’s the latest year figures were available. The report says Wyoming incarcerates 239 out of every 100,000 juveniles, which is more than every other state except West Virginia (291 per 100,000 juveniles) and Alaska (330 per 100,000 juveniles).

Lack of data has prevented the state from launching effective policies aimed at curbing the rate, and the problem could grow burdensomely large in coming years without comprehensive collection of data for researchers and officials to review, according to discussions during the Nov. 11-12 meeting of the state legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee.

Korin Schmidt, director of the Department of Family Services, says it’s important that any legislation creating a data collection system for juvenile justice data include a requirement that city and county agencies must participate in the program and input their information into the system. (Courtesy photo)

The draft bill that members of the committee say they support would mandate juvenile data collection for law enforcement, municipalities and courts.

The Wyoming Department of Family Services, Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center, the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Supreme Court all have their own ways of collecting data, widely varying in methodologies and standards as to what details are included and what are not. This makes it difficult to track outcomes and determine what approaches worked or didn’t work in treating juvenile offenders.

The draft bill looks to standardize that process and to have Family Services as the central authority and hub of all data to be sent and compiled, starting in 2024.

The proposal will have the Department of Family Services and juvenile agencies collect data on youth within the juvenile court system and those tried in courts as adults. Data would be collected for every step of judicial proceedings on most types of offenses.

Yet the proposal still lacks key clauses for the bill to truly mandate data collection for law enforcement agencies or municipalities, lawmakers and others said during the Nov. 11-12 committee meetings. If compliance is voluntary, the results most likely would be incomplete, state experts say.

“The point is that without some sort of enforcement mechanism, really getting the data is going to be problematic, which is where we started with this conversation,” said Korin Schmidt, director of the Department of Family Services.

“I would be concerned without some sort of explicit authority to collect that data that we would then be in a catch-22 where we would come before this committee again or larger legislature and say, ‘Yes, we have responsibility, but we didn’t get it done.’”

Funding also looms as an obstacle to creating a data collection system. Family Services would need to provide training to participants and then pay to operate and maintain the system. That initiative comes at a time when the department’s budget has been and will be cut as the state of Wyoming is grappling with a drop in tax revenue.

Elisa Butler, state court administrator with the Wyoming Supreme Court, testified that the financial concern also extends to individual municipalities, as many of the 99 incorporated municipalities in the state simply do not have resources to participate in the data collection.

Elisa Butler, court administrator for the Wyoming Supreme Court, says many of the state’s 99 municipalities will not have the staff and funds to pay for entering their juvenile justice records into a new computer system. (Courtesy photo)

“The biggest issue with municipalities is that some of these 99 municipalities are incredibly small, not much money and maybe with one employee,” Butler said, when asked if she has any suggestions on how to capture juvenile justice data from municipal courts.

“Getting them to be able to enter information is difficult,” Butler added. “They are understaffed, they are underfunded, just like everybody else in the government.”

The need to create this data collection system, however, remains top of mind for activists across the state.

“Wyoming has never had a statewide data collection system for youth in the juvenile justice system,” said Donna Sheen, director of the Wyoming Children’s Law Center, in an open letter to legislators in September.

“This lack of uniform data collection creates problems in reforming the juvenile justice system as there is little to no information available as to the outcomes of youth delinquency adjudication, out-of-home placements, or if Wyoming’s practices over-represent certain populations.”

Sheen wrote that standardized data collection would help Wyoming objectively evaluate its ongoing juvenile justice programs and thereby create better evidence and data-backed intervention and diversion programs.

“We know that confinement generally has very poor outcomes,” Sheen said in an interview with the Wyoming Truth. “We generally see in the research that it increases, rather than decreases, future recidivism; it disconnects children from schools, and many of the youth placed in any form of confinement end up having very poor educational outcome.”

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