SHERIDAN — The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee will take time between now and the start of the next session to examine several issues concerning juvenile justice including data collection, the possible expansion of Title 14 confidentiality to municipal and circuit court, what diversion programs are successful and the expunging of juvenile records.
Neal Madson, administrator of Sheridan County’s Juvenile Justice, is also a member of the governor-appointed State Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice, a group that works together with the Department of Family Services to develop an idea of what a statewide data system might look like and what information should be in it.
“What we’re looking at is a database that we can take a look at and see, say, how many kids got (minor in possession citations) last year, there’s nothing that can do that,” Madson said. “We want something where we can say, ‘This is a Sheridan issue,’ or ‘This is a statewide issue’ and have the data to back it up.”
Not having such a database, Madson said, does cause some confusion. He pointed out that some national reports will talk about the high rate of juvenile incarceration in Wyoming but often have the data confused.
“They’ll be talking about arrests when very few juveniles are actually arrested,” Madson said. “They’re cited, but very few will be taken into custody.”
Madson said accurate, clear data would give a better picture of what is happening and what is not happening. On a local level, he said, accurate data is important for funding and to determine if it’s being used wisely.
Juvenile confidentiality will also be discussed by the interim committee. Madson said the confidentiality issue stems from the fact that municipal and circuit courts are courts of public record.
“They’re aware of that, and often they’ll deal with kids differently and deal with them separately and not have them mixed in with the adults, but it’s still an open court,” Madson said.
There is a certain stigma with kids who get into trouble with the law, he said, and greater confidentiality would help keep those families from that public stigma.
“If they made it a law the courts would have to change things a little, but not too much,” Madson said, “especially here in Sheridan County.”
That confidentiality issue falls into the bill to automatically expunge juvenile records when the offender turns 18, he said, and it’s a bill with which Madson has concerns.
“I don’t agree with that from my standpoint,” he said. “The way that the bill was written is that the record would automatically be expunged unless the county attorney brought action that it shouldn’t be. That’s putting additional work on the county attorney’s office when it should lie with the kid and the family. It should be the kid’s responsibility to take care of it.”
Madson called the expungement of records an “accountability piece.”
“Kids need to go through that process,” he said. “They made poor decisions, they need to follow through with the accountability of those decisions.”
Other than the accountability issue, Madson said, he doesn’t have a problem with the expungement of records for kids when the issues are minor.
“Obviously there are some, like violent offenders, who need to have that on their record,” he said.
That idea, he said, ties into the community’s diversion programs. Most of the kids who end up in Sheridan County’s diversion program are kids with minor drug offenses or other mischief offenses.
“They’re young kids who are here for things like shoplifting, drinking, impulsive, make a poor decision,” Madson said. “If they spend some time in that program, hopefully they won’t be back.”
Diversion programs differ around the state, Madson said. In Sheridan County, the program helps kids connect with other programs and activities in the community that actively engage them in things that keep their focus off of troublemaking, be it community programs or extracurricular activities after school.
Ideas like those bring the advisory board’s mission full circle.
“As part of the advisory board we go from community to community to talk to them and find out what’s working, what they need, what they could use funding for,” Madson said. “That’s part of where that data would come in so we can look at those issues and find out what’s working and if it can be used in another community.”
The data says that Wyoming’s juvenile incarceration rate is dropping, and Madson feels that the steps communities are taking to help keep kids out of trouble but still demand accountability for their actions are helping those numbers drop.
“We have those early interventions, whatever we can do, we try to do that,” Madson said. “Kids make mistakes. They don’t alway use their brain. But it shouldn’t be following them all through their lives.”