WORLAND - A panel of Wyoming lawmakers said Thursday they want to hear more from both sides before they decide whether to endorse Gov. Matt Mead's proposal to create a unified juvenile court system.
Gary Hartman, a former state district judge who serves as Mead's justice policy adviser, told members of the Legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee in Worland that the state needs to establish a single court system to handle nearly all juvenile cases.
But Mead's proposal came under fire from county prosecutors who said the current system already works well.
The committee agreed to hear more testimony at its next hearing this August in Sundance before discussing whether to sponsor a bill on the issue in next year's legislative session.
Hartman said Wyoming's current system allows juveniles accused of crimes to be prosecuted in four different court systems: municipal, circuit, district or juvenile courts.
"The system we have in Wyoming for holding youth accountable is different in every county," Hartman said. "The lack of a unified system does cause some disparate practices throughout the state."
Hartman said the state currently spends more than $100 million a year through a handful of different government agencies to try to help juveniles who are involved in the juvenile justice system, or who are at risk of becoming involved.
"We don't have the data we need to show how the state money is being spent," Hartman said.
Hartman said the state education department currently gives school districts about $50 million a year to help troubled kids but said the department can't say where the money is being spent. He said the state doesn't know if it's being used, "to hire bus drivers or to pay utilities for the gymnasium."
Creating a single, unified court system to handle juvenile cases wouldn't require hiring new judges or building new courthouses, Hartman said. Rather, he said it would involve reorganizing how the state uses its resources.
Among the benefits, Hartman said creating a single juvenile court system would keep kids out of adult courts where they now commonly pick up adult criminal records that can haunt them for life, preventing them from being able to join the military or work as professionals.
"While it is certainly sometimes necessary to lock up youth to protect public safety, studies have shown that locking up youth sometimes hurts more than it helps," Hartman said. He said most juvenile cases could be handled by diverting them to community service and other programs, while the rest should be handled by juvenile court judges who would have sole authority over whether children need detention.
However, several county prosecutors told the committee that the state's current system works well. They warned that creating a new system would be expensive, probably require more judges and wouldn't produce better results for kids.
Jeani Stone, Campbell County prosecutor and head of the state association of county attorneys, told the committee that most, if not all, county attorneys around the state agree that the present system isn't broken.
Stone also warned that she believes the state would need new courts and judges to handle juvenile cases under the unified system Hartman proposed. She said judges currently are able to deal with some misdemeanor cases involving groups of juveniles all at once, while each one could require separate hearings under the proposed system.
Several circuit court and district court judges addressed the committee. They said juvenile cases are among the toughest they handle, and that they will hear them in whatever court system Legislature directs them to use.
Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, is co-chairman of the committee. Speaking after the meeting, he said that if the groups involved can't come to better agreement by the committee's meeting in August, the Legislature may decide against trying to develop a new juvenile court system and instead try to address individual issues, such as privacy of juvenile records and unequal treatment of juveniles in different areas of the state.