Gideon Alert: Wyoming tries 85-90% of all juveniles as adults

BY David Carroll on Monday, July 19, 2010 at 1:06 PM

"Unlike any other state in the nation, Wyoming commonly prosecutes children as criminals, imposing adult sentences for misbehavior more typical of normal adolescence than criminal.  At significant cost to Wyoming taxpayers, children as young as eight years old who get in trouble for such transgressions as smoking at school, drinking at a weekend party, stealing a pack of gum, or skateboarding in the wrong place are being criminally prosecuted in adult courts in counties and cities throughout the state.”  Thus begins a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wyoming released in June 2010. 

The report continues: “While these adolescent misbehaviors may be challenging to families and communities trying to raise healthy kids, they present little or no real threat to public safety.  Nevertheless, Wyoming uses costly criminal procedures and expensive detention beds to punish children for conduct that is more effectively addressed in the home or at school.  It is estimated that 85-90% of children in trouble with the law in Wyoming are currently being processed through adult, not juvenile, courts where they become saddled with adult criminal convictions for minor misbehaviors."  The collateral consequences of adult criminal convictions are many that can prevent juveniles from maturing into responsible citizens, including but not limited to impacts on future employment opportunities, access to student loans, and ability to enroll for military service.

Given that Wyoming was one of the first northwestern states to create a statewide public defender system, how has this practice been able to occur to such extent that Wyoming now has the second highest juvenile incarceration rate in the country?  To begin with, Wyoming has an antiquated statute that gives concurrent jurisdiction over juvenile matters to district courts and juvenile courts.  Prosecutors have the discretion to file charges in either.  In what most states would see as an inverse of their own system, the formal juvenile justice system is reserved for the most serious crimes, while the bulk of juvenile indiscretions are tried in adult court.  And, since the vast majority of alleged juvenile transgressions are non-violent, most of these cases go through local municipal or city courts where the statewide public defender system does not have statutory authority to handle cases.  So kids begin their journey in adult courts without access to the state public defenders. 

From there, the ACLU report makes clear the other factors that come into play to chill the right to counsel:

1. Undue Judicial Interference: “Moreover, in several of the courtroom proceedings we observed, judges advised indigent children that if they could not afford counsel the court would appoint an attorney to represent them, but that doing so might delay the hearing, and/or that the children might—or would—have to pay back the cost of their defense.  Many of the children we saw so advised were in court without an adult present with them."

2. Non-Informed Waivers of Counsel: "In Natrona County, for example, youth who were revoked from probation or held in contempt were not provided notice of their right to appointed counsel or the opportunity to request one at the revocation or contempt hearing.  Indeed, nearly all of the children who we saw enter guilty pleas during our site visits were not represented by counsel at this critical stage of the criminal process.”

Children who come in contact with delinquency and criminal courts too often have been neglected by the full range of support structures that normally channel children in appropriate constructive directions.  When they are brought to court and not given an advocate with the time, tools and training to properly represent them, the message of neglect and worthlessness continues, and the risk that the juvenile will commit more — and worse — crimes increases.  Non-functioning juvenile systems, like those in Wyoming, can have the perverse effect of actually decreasing public safety and increasing the chance that more young people will fall into a lifetime of crime and imprisonment.