Wyoming Liberty Group
Juvenile Justice Reforms: The Other Side of the Argument
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 strongly believe that status crimes, non-violent juvenile misbehavior which is only defined as criminal because of the age of the person committing the act, should be decriminalized. This does not mean that I advocate Wyoming adopting purely non-judicial soft-on-crime positions for serious crimes.
While it is difficult to justify long jail terms for minor juvenile crimes such as minor schoolyard scuffles, status offenses or technical violations, this week we take a look at what happens when juvenile justice reform efforts go too far. Bear in mind that this story is not about a Wyoming juvenile.
Last fall in Oregon, a seventeen-year-old boy named Jaime Tinoco was on a supervised field trip for juvenile offenders within the Washington County, Oregon juvenile probation program. He separated from the group, dragged a 39-year-old woman into the bushes, brutally raped and beat her. These facts are not in contention. Tinoco pled guilty in April of this year and will serve over fourteen years in prison.
This was a horrendous crime. The questions it raised were broader than the crime itself. How could a juvenile offender on a supervised probation trip possibly do such things? Oregon resident Steve Doell, President of Crime Victims United of Oregon has a harsh assessment of the situation with some difficult but undeniable truth:
“Formally adjudicated (the juvenile equivalent of adult conviction) last summer of burglary and harassment in Washington County juvenile court, Tinoco was assessed by the juvenile department of that county as a low risk to re-offend, based on a risk-assessment questionnaire that is used throughout the state.
That evaluation led to a low-key probation that resulted in Tinoco’s savage rape of a 39-year-old woman in Eugene after he walked away from a juvenile-department field trip to a Ducks football game. Now Tinoco has been indicted for the brutal stabbing murder of 29-year-old mother-of-four Nicole Laube in another vicious attempted sexual assault in Washington County — also while being “supervised” on juvenile probation.
Oregon today has established itself as the national leader in “juvenile justice reform.” Employing policies developed by East Coast anti-incarceration interest groups like the Annie E. Casey Foundation, our state casts itself as the future of cutting-edge juvenile justice policy. At taxpayer expense, Multnomah County juvenile authorities have even established their own juvenile justice reform institute, inviting authorities from around the nation to attend classes to promote our state’s vision of juvenile justice reform.
The “reforms” advocated by the leaders of this movement, never advertised to the public at large, would leave most reasonable people at a loss for words. The use of risk-assessment tools, like the one that led to Tinoco’s lax supervision and brutal crimes, is a case in point.”
Many states have adopted the liberal juvenile justice reforms advocated by organizations such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, their subsidiary Kids Count and the federal Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). When juveniles commit violent crime the last few decades have seen an increase of the use of so-called “transfer laws” which essentially evaluate the severity of the juvenile crime and declare that the child be tried as an adult. The OJJDP argues that no juveniles should ever be tried as an adult.
One might expect that victims of violent juvenile crime would have more of a lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key perspective. A recent publication from the National Center for Victims of Crime claims that the vast majority of victims strongly advocate for what they call “restorative justice”. This does not mean yoga classes and field trips but consequences and rehabilitation which are appropriate for the behavior.
What does all of this mean for Wyoming? Here is my perspective. Let’s all stop thinking about Wyoming’s slow speed of adopting change in the juvenile justice system as an entirely bad thing. We have not yet created such a ludicrously lax system as described by Steve Doell of Oregon. As citizens we all want our communities to be safe from violent crime no matter who is committing it. At the same time, we shouldn’t 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 Wyoming’s overall violent crime arrests for either juveniles or adults are very low. This chart is based on FBI arrest data.
We have an opportunity to stop the practice of adopting national policies in totality as pitched by non-Wyoming-based organizations without question. I’m sure that many of these programs have some wonderful aspects for some communities but I find myself wondering how relevant these pre-packaged “reform plans” are for real communities in Wyoming.