Melinda Dennington landed in western Wyoming’s Uinta County jail when she was 14, busted for breaking into a truck in the courthouse garage.
Ten weeks behind bars in an adult jail did little to help her drug problem. In fact, she got her fixes through a hole in the wall — pills passed from boys in a neighboring cell.
And when she acted up, her jailers threw her in solitary.
“The staff didn’t know how to handle me,” said Dennington, now 23. “Granted, I was a little teenage punk brat, but they didn’t know how to properly deal with that.”
Wyoming is big on tough love. Hundreds of Wyoming juveniles each year are locked up for minor crimes like shoplifting, drinking and even running away. The main reason is that many of these youngsters are tried in adult rather than in juvenile courts.
“Kids who get involved in juvenile courts are treated pretty well. But the problem is, the vast majority of kids who are in trouble with the law never get into juvenile court,” said John Burman, a University of Wyoming law professor who specializes in juvenile justice issues.
Research shows that as many as 97 percent of juveniles are tried in adult court instead of in juvenile court in parts of Wyoming. That includes speeding tickets but also non-traffic crimes like theft and alcohol possession.
Only the worst get into Wyoming’s juvenile court system.
“We know as we are doing this, as we are incarcerating these kids, that we are making them worse,” said Linda Burt, Wyoming’s ACLU director. “We are just streamlining them into the adult criminal justice system by jailing them.”
Only state opting out of federal act
Wyoming is the only state that opts out of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, a 33-year-old law that says when and how states are allowed to lock up kids under 18. Wyoming pays a price for not participating, losing about $600,000 in federal grant money each year.
Wyoming did take part in the law from 1991 until 1993 but backed out because rural sheriff’s departments didn’t have adequate facilities to comply, according to Ric Paul, chairman of the State Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice.
“The requirements for transporting and holding and detaining juveniles were so restrictive, that sheriff’s departments, primarily, felt that they couldn’t meet those standards,” Paul said.
Today, the money Wyoming loses each year by not participating remains tiny compared to what it would cost to bring every jail up to federal standards for holding juveniles.
Nevertheless, Paul said the advisory council is working toward bringing Wyoming under the federal law. Paul is hopeful that could happen in three to six years.
Critics seek better system
Burman, the law professor, said Wyoming needs a better system.
“Some kids might get picked up for speeding. Some kid may get drunk on prom night. But we need to have something in place to decide objectively which kids should get to juvenile court and which ones should not,” he said.
Some juvenile justice advocates point to Cheyenne as a possible model for a statewide system. The city has a juvenile municipal court that works with prosecutors to line up mentoring and other services — not jail — for juvenile offenders.
At the same time, some say, throwing kids in jail needs to remain an option. Mike Blonigen, the district attorney in Casper, said he occasionally seeks detention for juveniles as a last resort for repeat offenders.
“Sometimes there’s really very little recourse other than that. Frankly, some kids just don’t take it very seriously until it gets to that point,” Blonigen said.
Casper has one of just two juvenile centers in the state, facilities that would comply with the federal law if it applied in Wyoming. Blonigen said rural areas, which don’t have facilities like Casper’s nearby, have a much bigger problem.
He said those communities are not likely to build their own juvenile facilities just to keep a small number of youngsters out of adult jails.
“You could ship them off to Casper or someplace,” he said. “But parents complain, perhaps rightfully so, ‘How am I supposed to work this out with these kids if I’m 300 miles away?”’
A success story
Soon after getting out of the Uinta County jail, Dennington was sent to the Wyoming Girls School, a treatment and reform facility in Sheridan. It took four stays there (she kept being sent back for run-ins with the law and not getting along with foster parents) to finally kick her drug habit.
Her last stay, when she was 17, was not the result of being sentenced. She went back voluntarily.
Today, Dennington is a member of the state Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice. She is completing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at the University of Wyoming and is working at Volunteers of America in Sheridan, helping other young adults.