Wyoming Liberty Group
Last week we discussed the reemerging proposed legislative change from a CHINS program in Wyoming to a FINS program.
In brief, CHINS is the acronym for Child in Need of Supervision which is basically a child whom Wyoming Department of Family Services (DFS) believes to be uncontrollable by the child’s parents. CHINS legislation requires court appearances and due process and if the Court finds that they agree with the DFS position they legally authorize DFS to mandate “services”.
Last year the Wyoming Department of Family Services proposed that Wyoming’s CHINS legislation be replaced with a FINS program. Model legislation from Massachusetts was presented to the Wyoming Judiciary Interim Committee. The FINS proposal was defeated in committee last year but it has found its way back on the agenda again this year.
There are a few weeks before the next meeting so this is the right time to make sure we understand the issues and terminology which we will explore with this series.
In 1974 the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was passed mainly for the purpose of deinstitutionalizing juvenile status offenders. Most states initiated the act over the next few decades. Wyoming did not.
Last week wasn’t the first time I’ve run into stories advocating for harsher treatment for juvenile offenders. In all fairness, the story out of Oregon was shocking and horrifying but even with the indications of poor management of their juvenile probation program it does not prove that all kids should be locked up no matter how minor the infraction.
As citizens we all want our communities to be safe from violent crime no matter who is committing it. At the same time, we shouldnt sentence our juvenile offenders of minor non-violent crime to a lifetime of institutionalization.
As we go forward in reform efforts let us not forget that Wyomings overall violent crime arrests for either juveniles or adults are very low.
Wyoming is not trendy. We are not generally the first state to adopt anything new. In issues of juvenile justice, we have not adopted very many of the rehabilitation-based non-punitive measures used for juvenile misbehavior in much of the country for the last few decades. Generally when we state facts like this we are indicating that Wyoming’s lack of conformity to modern standards is a bad thing.
I have been researching Wyoming juvenile justice issues for several years now, and I am still sometimes surprised at what I find. When I began this research, I will admit that I was predisposed to simply believe that our law enforcement community should just stop arresting so many juveniles.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, I believe that Wyoming should decriminalize status offenses. According to the most recent data available through both the FBI and the OJJDP, Wyoming ranks second-to-highest in the nation for both juvenile arrests and juvenile incarcerations.
Wyoming is also the only state that has not decriminalized status offenses. Decriminalization does not necessarily mean that no juveniles would ever be arrested for behaviors that are classified as status offenses. Let’s face it; the behavior of the juvenile when he or she interacts with law enforcement and other authority figures plays a large part in whether he or she is arrested.
This week I attended two days of the Judiciary Interim Committee. There were several juvenile justice related topics on the agenda. During my attendance at these long and sometimes heated meetings a junior legislator asked out loud (in frustration) if anyone knew whether juvenile crime in Wyoming was actually decreasing.