When Fremont County closed its juvenile detention facility at the county jail in Lander last summer, it left law enforcement officers both on and off the reservation without a local option for detaining youth who commit serious crimes or who fail to comply with the conditions of their probation.
The jail was closed to juveniles in July 2012 after an increase in the number of adult inmates led Fremont County to convert the juvenile wing to a women’s facility. In response to the situation, representatives of the Northern Arapahoe tribe have pushed harder than ever for a jail on the reservation, while the juvenile justice system throughout the county has put more effort into finding alternatives to jailing young people, especially for minor offenses.
When juveniles on the reservation do need to be placed behind bars, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) transports them to a facility in Busby, Mont., on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. In some cases, BIA officers from Busby will meet the officers from the Wind River reservation in Sheridan, Wyo., which cuts 90 minutes off the six-hour drive. But most often, according to a BIA officer who has made the trip, one (or sometimes two) of the reservation’s police officers must drop other duties to drive the full 12 hours to Montana and back. When the child’s presence is required in court, the BIA sends an officer to bring him back.
Because transportation is expensive and often hard to organize on short notice, juvenile probation violators who might have been detained nine months ago are often released to their families today. Aline Kitchin, juvenile probation supervisor for the Northern Arapahoe tribe, says the policy change has eroded some young people’s respect for the law.
“All of our juveniles are laughing in officers’ faces,” Kitchin said. “Detention would give the child a chance to sit and think about how they don’t want to end up in jail as an adult offender.”
Kitchin says she has about 40 youth probation cases. Most of those young people live with family members, show up for court hearings and attend school. Typical first offenses include underage drinking and truancy. If parents or other responsible relatives take an interest, that is often enough to correct the problem. Repeat offenders land in youth services or, if that fails, in tribal court. For those who received probation and did not comply with conditions, detention was an option.
“We have three who are non-compliant,” Kitchin said. “For those three, detention would be good.”
If jailing juveniles is rare — and Kitchin emphasizes that it should be rare on the reservation — the threat of detention is useful. Without it, young people are more likely to defy the authorities and flout the law. Two of the three non-compliant juveniles are girls, ages 16 and 17, who skip school and run away from home. It takes time to find them, and when they are released they disappear again, according to Kitchin.
“We’ve lost that one step that we could use as a deterrent,” said Angela McKann, a probation officer on Kitchin’s staff.
The Fremont County jail originally had 20 beds reserved for juveniles in a section of the building that was, by state law, “out of sight and sound” of the adult inmates in the same building. The jail also had separate adult sections for men and women. The adult sections were often full during the last few years, and frequently overflowed. Inmates were sent to Sweetwater County or Natrona County at a cost of roughly $65 per day plus transportation costs, according to Sheriff Skip Hornecker. At the same time, there were often only one or two juvenile inmates in the jail.
“We were keeping the juvenile jail open for just a handful of inmates,” Hornecker said. “At the same time, we were shipping dozens of adults out of county every month.”
A “full” jail does not always contain the same number of inmates, Hornecker notes. In addition to housing men and women separately, the sheriff needs to keep what he calls “warring families” apart within the men’s and women’s lockups. Placing people with ongoing disputes in separate cells or pods can leave empty adult beds that are hard to fill. Instead of allowing a potentially violent disturbance to ferment in the jail, he sometimes sends inmates out of county.
“Keeping the juvenile detention section of the jail open was costing the county $400,000 a year,” said Brian Varn, the former Fremont County Attorney, who resigned Feb. 28 to move to Colorado, where his wife took a new job. Most of that cost was for housing and transporting adult inmates to Casper or Rock Springs.
The county now houses women inmates in the juvenile section of the jail and pays $110 per day to house juvenile offenders in the Sweetwater jail, according to the sheriff. The per-inmate cost is higher, but the county is only paying for two inmates.
“They are both being held on very serious charges,” Hornecker said. “One is charged with murder, the other with sexual assault.”
If closing the juvenile detention center in the jail was a simple financial decision, it wasn’t an easy one.
“It was fiscally responsible,” Hornecker said. “Instead of 20 to 25 inmates out of county at $65 a day, we have two at $110 a day. The one heartache I had was the tribes. We were contracting with the reservation and I knew the impact it would have.”
Even as closing the juvenile detention system caused problems for the tribal justice system, it spurred reflection on and off the reservation. The county received a two-year grant in June 2012 from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to participate in its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), which aims to reduce juveniles’ “likelihood of unnecessary or inappropriate incarceration, and minimize the risks they pose to their communities,” according to the foundation’s website. A month after the county began the alternatives program, it closed the juvenile detention center in the jail.
“Nobody planned it that way,” said Melinda Cox, the county’s JDAI coordinator. “But closing the jail lit a fire under everybody.”
First among the central tenets of the JDAI program is cooperation and collaboration among the various stakeholders in the juvenile justice system, from the schools and police to the court system, probation officers and group homes. The goal is to find a supportive environment for a teenager — one that provides enough services that the child will voluntarily participate in a program even if he or she is not confined.
“As a whole, we’ve probably over-utilized detention at times,” said Cox. “I did juvenile probation for years. It was black and white. When a kid violated probation, they went to jail. My attitude changed. I do think we need to utilize alternatives.”
One of the architects of Fremont County’s changing approach to juvenile detention was Varn, the former county attorney.
“We wanted to fix the process,” Varn said. “We wanted to stop the over-criminalization of juveniles. Most of them were one-time hits for MIP [minor in possession of alcohol]. The definition of teenager is ‘Stupid: judgment not yet in place.’ We did not want them to get a criminal record for one teenage mistake. We wanted to set kids up, if possible, for turning 18 without a criminal record. We wanted them to be ready for college or joining the military without a criminal record.”
Varn said that a trip in November 2011 to visit a large new juvenile detention facility in Albuquerque convinced him that Fremont County was overusing juvenile detention. What he called the “Taj Mahal” of juvenile detention New in Mexico filled to capacity very quickly after it was built. But a simple administrative change sharply dropped the number of admissions.
“If you made the police officers do the paperwork before they left the juvenile at the facility, the number of kids entering the facility dropped by 60 percent,” Varn said in a phone interview. “Kids ended up in detention because it was an easy way to deal with them. The change forced all organizations outside the jail to do their job.”
Now all of the organizations involved in the juvenile justice process, on and off the reservation, hold weekly telephone meetings to discuss the cases of individual young people and plot the best reactions to any missteps they make. When young people are removed from a family setting, they are frequently placed in one of the two county group homes — girls in Lander and boys in Riverton.
“We have had 22 youth in non-secure detention at the group homes since July 1, 2012,” said Shannon Horton, associate director of the Lander Group Home for Girls. Residents are not locked in, even though they are closely monitored. “Only one walked away.” Horton said. “That person was immediately arrested and taken to [secure detention] in Casper.”
Horton emphasizes that there is nothing new about placing youthful offenders in group homes. But if group homes are taking the place of secure detention, she sees that as progress. “I am an advocate for alternatives to detention,” Horton said. “But I do not believe that children should never be in jail.”
Mike Broadhead, chief of police in Riverton, praised the Department of Family Services and the group homes in particular.
“I thought closing it would have a bigger effect,” he said. “But it has not been a huge problem. For us the big thing has been the group homes. They’ve stepped up and taken kids. DFS is there for us in the middle of the night, too. It’s easy for everyone to shut their doors at night and leave the problem with the cops. DFS comes and helps us.”
One of the boldest new initiatives in the county is located at the Group Home for Boys in Riverton and will eventually expand to the girls’ group home in Lander.
Called the “Day Reporting Center,” it is a school setting for students who are involved with the court system and also in danger of getting expelled from school — often for unrelated offenses. Possession of drugs, fighting and weapons possession are typical offenses that lead to expulsion.
Paid for by seven of the school districts in Fremont County (so far, Dubois and Shoshoni are not participating) the Day Reporting Center offers online education for up to 10 students at each location under the supervision of a classroom teacher.
The students stay enrolled in the local district even as he or she is physically removed from the building. The juvenile justice system sees this as a good outcome since being out of school correlates with delinquency, according to Cox, who oversees the new co-ed program.
The county hired a special education teacher who has worked in elementary, middle and high schools to teach the children. The students show up for school between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and must complete a curriculum that would enable them to make academic progress until they return to school after their suspension ends.
In addition to academic services, the program offers individual counseling with an outside therapist and instruction in values and moral decision making as well as practical skills such as how to cook and eat on a budget. Currently four students between 8th and 12th grade are enrolled in the program. One is a Native enrolled in the Fort Washakie school district.
Education has always been part of the detention process as well, said Chuck Kratz, the longtime director of Fremont County Youth Services. Reaching for the easiest data to find on short notice, Kratz noted that in the summer session between May 31 and Aug. 19, 2011, the juvenile detention center served 44 students, nine of whom were in special education classes. All of the students were enrolled in the Lander school district.
However, two-thirds of the students attended school at the detention center for less than six days. Only two were enrolled for more than two weeks.
Kratz is particularly sympathetic to the tribes’ need for detention. He has helped with a so-far unsuccessful effort to fund and build a new detention facility on the reservation and co-written a grant with Hornecker to build a new juvenile wing on the Fremont County Jail. But like the sheriff, he believes that the juvenile justice community should think carefully about what kind of new detention facility is needed.
“At this point, I would be more in support of building a detox treatment structure,” Hornecker said. “It would be soft detention. That would take care of a lot of detention issues. We’re not treating the alcohol now.”
Like his counterparts in the Northern Arapahoes, Clarence Thomas, the Eastern Shoshone Juvenile Services Director, welcomes alternatives to detention, at least to a point.
“The JDAI concept is good,” Thomas said. “But you do have to have detention.”
Varn, the former county attorney who pushed many of the alternatives to detention during the past few years, remains sympathetic to the Native views.
“We never tried to tell the Tribal Court or anyone else on the reservation what they had to do,” Varn said. “At the same time, I hope they would achieve the same outcomes with their youth that we want. We want kids turning 18 without a criminal record.”
— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org.