BUFFALO — The Wyoming Legislature has passed a bill that would begin collecting statewide data on the juvenile justice system in Wyoming in hopes of better understanding what works and what doesn’t in the state.
The House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill after adding funding for the program, and Gov. Mark Gordon signed it into law last week.
Wyoming has one of the highest rates of juvenile incarceration in the country, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count survey, and legal advocates and legislators hope that collecting data will be the first step in amending Wyoming’s juvenile justice system to better serve juveniles.
Without understanding what’s happening, policymakers won’t be able to craft effective solutions, advocates for the bill said during committee meetings.
“We do what we do, but we never really know whether it makes a difference,” said Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, who supported the legislation.
The bill shifts the responsibility to collect data from the Department of Criminal Investigations to the Department of Family Services and clarifies what data should be collected. County officials would be responsible for collecting the data and delivering it to the DFS.
Technically, DCI has been required to collect data on juvenile crimes for years, but the state statute hasn’t been enforced.
That’s in part because the DCI is poorly suited to collect the data in the first place, according to Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, who sits on the Joint Judiciary Committee that sponsored the bill and who voted for it himself.
The state does not have a comprehensive, uniform system to track data on juveniles who enter the judicial system, and many counties handle juvenile crimes differently, making it even harder to track statewide outcomes, according to advocates. For example, some county prosecutors use more diversion programs, while others file charges in court. And municipal, circuit and juvenile courts all deal with juvenile crime differently.
While the DCI interacts with juveniles occasionally, the DFS does so more routinely and already tracks some of the data legislators are interested in, Crago said.
Advocates and policymakers say this legislation represents the best opportunity yet to establish a reporting system that would give Wyomingites a view into how the juvenile justice system works.
“The idea is, without breaching confidentiality, being able to track what works and what doesn’t work, what’s really making a difference in the lives of these kids,” Kinskey said.
But Crago and County and Prosecuting Attorney Tucker Ruby have expressed concern that the state would be mandating that county officials provide data — a time-consuming process, Ruby said — without offering any funding to do so.
Legislators provided about $700,000 for DFS as part of the bill, which will go toward the initial startup costs to build the data collection system and fund a full-time position to oversee it.
The Legislature also replaced funding for Community Juvenile Services Boards that had been axed during budget cuts in 2020. The Legislature appropriated $2.25 million for the boards, but the funding will be contingent on them collecting and providing data on juvenile outcomes.
Kinskey said that the Community Juvenile Services Boards were one of several programs whose budgets were cut that legislators decided really did need to be funded.
“I think we’re getting back on track. I think we lost our way during that budget downturn. A lot of things got cut that, in hindsight, you say, ‘You know what? Probably that was not a good idea,’ ” Kinskey said.
Crago said the concern that the data collection mandate could adversely affect local officials without funding is still valid and that if the concern turns out to be well founded, legislators will have to come up with a fix. For now, he’s waiting to see what the impact of the law is.
“If we’re making our local law enforcement spend hours and hours and hours doing this, when they should be doing other things, and we’re not helping them fund that, that becomes a problem,” Crago said. “But I think we’re hopeful that that’s not the case.”
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