SHERIDAN — A nationwide report released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation claims Wyoming trails only South Dakota when it comes to the rate at which the state imprisons juveniles.
According to figures compiled by the foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, the Cowboy State detained or incarcerated 440 juveniles per every 100,000 in 2010. By contrast, first place Vermont held only 53.
In “No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration,” the report’s authors argue that a willingness to lock up minors doesn’t result in any long-term societal benefit. Instead, the result is often a slate of young adults unable to gain meaningful entry into the working world as the result of prior convictions.
“While a small number of youthful offenders pose a serious threat to the public and must be confined, incarcerating a broader swath of the juvenile offender population provides no benefit for public safety,” the report states. “It wastes vast sums of taxpayer dollars. And more often than not, it harms the well-being and dampens the future prospects of the troubled and lawbreaking youth who get locked up.”
Photo: By Nichole Scofield
This graphic depicts the number of juveniles in confinement in 2010 per 100,000 and the percent change compared to 1997.
Statistics compiled by the group also point to a unique American reliance on juvenile incarceration when compared to the rest of the world. Though juvenile violent crime arrest rates are only marginally higher in the United States when compared to many other nations, the report claims the domestic youth custody rate was 336 of every 100,000 youths in 2002 — nearly five times the rate of the number two nation, South Africa.
“In other words, mass incarceration of troubled and troublemaking adolescents is neither inevitable nor necessary in a modern society,” the report states.
While Wyoming ranks exceptionally high among U.S. states, some local juvenile justice professionals take issue with how the report compiles its figures.
“I still think they’re pretty loose with their definitions,” Sheridan County Justice Office Administrator Neal Madson said.
“They’re painting with a broad brush,” he added.
Specifically, Madson said it is difficult to compare any one state to another since each jurisdiction faces unique challenges and works within the parameters of its own distinct corrections system.
“I think Wyoming has been really focusing on how best to meet the needs of the kids in Wyoming,” he said. “Everybody basically agrees that secure detention is a need for those kids who are violent, but it’s not a cure-all.”
While he takes issue with the Casey Foundation’s reporting methods, Madson said he agrees with the basic premise that forcibly imprisoning juveniles ought to be a last resort.
“A lot of times they get put into an environment with other kids who are dealing with criminal behavior, so they’re not leaving those facilities with real positive attitudes and ideas,” he said. “If we can work with them to change behavior…that will be much better for everybody.”
The Sheridan County Justice Office along with the Sheridan County Juvenile Justice Joint Powers Board serve as the area’s primary provider of community supervision and probation services to the municipal, circuit and juvenile courts in an attempt to keep adolescent offenders in the community and connected to their families, schools and other support systems.
The organization’s supervision services include first offender diversion, misdemeanor juvenile offender probation, truancy probation, community service supervision and thinking error education among others.
Madson said officials in the Justice Office work hard to intervene early in order to help wayward youth avoid criminal records on their way toward becoming productive members of society.
In a threat to its ability to continue providing those services, however, One-Cent Sales Tax funding from the city has dropped substantially in recent years. That drop has forced the office to dip into reserve funds in order to continue providing services, which also include operating a local youth home for nonviolent offenders.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to (increase funding) before decreasing services,” Madson said.