Larissa Salazar grew up in Wyoming, and when she was in eighth grade, she got in a fight on a school bus. That snowballed into her spending 16 months in a state juvenile facility. 

Reporter Tennessee Watson follows Larissa’s experience in the juvenile justice system in Wyoming, which locks up kids at one of the highest rates in the nation. Larissa’s mom says that instead of helping her daughter, the system made things worse.

Then Watson explores why Wyoming is clinging to its “get tough” approach to juvenile justice, even as many other states are moving away from punishing kids – especially for low-level or nonviolent offenses. Research shows that locking kids up doesn’t change their behavior and often creates a new set of problems. 

We end with Watson visiting South Dakota, a state that in the past few years has changed how it deals with kids who get in trouble. South Dakota’s juvenile justice system recognizes that kids who are incarcerated are more likely to get in trouble again, whereas kids who are held accountable and receive support close to home are not.

This show originally aired March 20, 2021.

Dig Deeper

Read: Since when is being a teenager a crime

Read: Juvenile Injustice in Wyoming (Wyoming Law Review)

Read: Grace – A Failure in Michigan’s Juvenile Justice System (ProPublica)

Read: The Future of Youth Justice – A Community Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model (Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy)


Reported by: Tennessee Watson | Produced by: Tennessee Watson and Eda Uzunlar | Edited by: Taki Telonidis | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Production assistance: Brett Simpson | Mixing, sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, with help from Brett Simpson and Ameeta Ganatra | Episode illustration: Eda Uzunlar |Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Special thanks: The Abrams Nieman Fellowship for Local Investigative Journalism, Wyoming Public Radio and South Dakota Public Broadcasting | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons FoundationDemocracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson:Jennifer Salazar lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where on a warm Saturday in October, she meets up with a reporter, Tennessee Watson, at a park on the edge of town.
Jennifer Salaza…:Hey, I’m Tennessee.
Tennessee Watso…:Hi, I’m Jennifer, nice to meet you.
Jennifer Salaza…:Nice to meet you too. [inaudible].
Tennessee Watso…:Sorry it’s been so crazy.
Jennifer Salaza…:Oh, no big deal at all –
Al Letson:They’re at the park and not at her house because Jennifer has something to share that her husband Andrew isn’t ready to talk about. It’s still hard for her too.
Jennifer Salaza…:So I will tell you and I’ll apologize now but this is the month that my daughter passed away. So if you notice I’m not wearing makeup and I brought Kleenex because it’s going to be a little hard.
Al Letson:It’s been three and a half years since Jennifer and Andrew’s daughter Larissa died. She just turned 16 when it happened, and it made Jennifer question whether Wyoming was a safe place to raise her two younger kids.
Jennifer Salaza…:It freaks me out to raise kids here and even though they say Wyoming is a good place to raise kids, I tell my husband, “I don’t know. If there a risk that we take raising them here? That they make a wrong step and get into the system and the same thing happens?” It freaks me out, [inaudible] it does.
Al Letson:The system Jennifer is talking about is the juvenile justice system. Jennifer’s daughter Larissa was in eighth grade when she got into a fight on the school bus, and that snowballed into 16 months in the state juvenile facility. The justice system was responding to a kid with a lot more going on in her life than just one fight on the bus. But rather than rehabilitate, Jennifer says that system made things worse.
Jennifer Salaza…:These kids need help and all they are doing is putting them in the system and saying, “Here, you’re going to be away from your family for nine months to a year. Then after that you’re going to be on probation again.” Like how effective is that?
Al Letson:Research says it’s not. That’s why many states are moving away from punishing kids, especially for low-level or non-violent offenses. It turns out doing things like locking kids up doesn’t change their behavior. So there’s a push to create programs that support troubled kids and keep them in the community. But these reforms aren’t a top priority everywhere. A handful of states continue to lock kids up at twice the national average, and Wyoming is consistently near the top of the list. Jennifer believes it has a lot to do with why Larissa is no longer alive today. We first brought you Larissa’s story in March. Reporter Tennessee Watson pieced together Larissa’s experience with the juvenile justice system to find out why Wyoming is so tough on kids.
Tennessee Watso…:Larissa Salazar was born and raised in Rock Springs, a mining town in Southwestern Wyoming. Pink and red rock buttes dot the horizon and wild horses roam the sage-covered desert right outside of town. About 23,000 people live here. It’s the biggest town for over 100 miles.
Tennessee Watso…:Larissa’s early childhood here wasn’t easy. When she was little, her biological mom, who is not Jennifer, struggled with drug addiction and was in and out of jail. Her parents split up when she was around five years old and her mom pretty much disappeared from Larissa’s life. When her dad met Jennifer and they got married, Larissa struggled to adjust. But despite those challenges, Jennifer says Larissa was a kid with a big heart.
Jennifer Salaza…:She was one of those kids that were like non-judgmental. So like if you were gay or straight or if you were fat or skinny or if you didn’t have the clothes that other kids had or shoes or whatever, she would want to still be your friend and she would want to like give her stuff to you and just always wanting to like help people.
Tennessee Watso…:Jennifer found this old video of Larissa playing with her younger brother. She has long brown hair and a nose ring. She is sitting on the floor while her brother runs circles around her.
Larissa Salazar:I love you.
Tennessee Watso…:Larissa loved her family, but she had a rebellious side too. That’s a common way kids respond to trauma and it got Larissa into trouble. One night, she said she was going to a friend’s house for a sleepover, but instead she was hanging out with a group of kids behind the local elementary school. When her dad found her, Larissa took off running. He was in flip-flops and couldn’t catch her, and it was getting late. So they called the cops for help. Officers brought Larissa home and gave her a curfew ticket, which meant she had to appear in municipal court.
Tennessee Watso…:This is one of the ways Wyoming is different from other parts of the country. In most states, a juvenile court would handle this. But in Wyoming, most of the time, kids end up in adult courts. Jennifer didn’t think it was fair for Larissa to have a curfew violation on her record or to pay a fine when they had called the cops for help.
Jennifer Salaza…:I went to court with her and they said, “Well we’re going to have you guys pay the fines,” and I was like, “No, she needs to like do community service or something.”
Tennessee Watso…:Jennifer says the judge took her advice and put Larissa in a diversion program. She had to agree to do some community service and to stay out of trouble, and the curfew ticket would disappear.
Jennifer Salaza…:And it did seem to work. Like she kind of grew up a little bit, she was respectable in the house. Like she was trying and then she got sexually assaulted.
Tennessee Watso…:You heard that right. Just as things were starting to turn around, Larissa was sexually assaulted. It was the day after Christmas and Larissa was sleeping over at a girlfriend’s house. Late at night, the girl’s 19-year-old brother came home and Jennifer says Larissa was the only one still up.
Jennifer Salaza…:And the 19-year-old boy wound up dragging her inside of her room and sexually assaulting her.
Tennessee Watso…:Larissa decided to speak up about the assault and that turned her closest friends into enemies. This was especially traumatic because until she had met them, Larissa struggled to feel accepted at school. She was often bullied by other kids, bullied for being chubby when she was little, bullied for her free spirit.
Tennessee Watso…:The 19-year-old was prosecuted and plead guilty to sexual abuse of a minor, and after that, Jennifer says his younger sister started harassing Larissa at school. Slut-shaming her and telling her she wanted it and getting other kids to badmouth Larissa too. Jennifer says Larissa put up with the bullying for months, but with just a few weeks of school left, she decided to strike back.
Jennifer Salaza…:She was on the bus and she called me crying and she said, “They won’t stop, Mom. They won’t stop telling everybody on the bus what happened and it’s so hard for me to keep hearing what happened.” I said, “Just get off the bus and just come home, and if we have to do something different next year we will.” She was like, “I’m going to physically assault one of them because I’m tired …” They were sitting right in back of her, and they were saying, “I’m going to hit you, I’m going to do this to you.” They were pulling her hair, and she had had enough and when the bus stopped she got up and she punched one of them in their mouth.
Tennessee Watso…:The case was filed in juvenile court and Larissa was charged with battery, which carries a maximum sentence of six months. But the judge put her on probation and Jennifer says at first, that seemed like a good thing.
Jennifer Salaza…:But then when she was on probation, they treated her like … “Okay, you’re a criminal. You’re on probation.” Like there’s no other help. You know what I’m saying? You’re just on probation, you’re going to follow the rules, you’re going to follow the rules of your house, you’re going to follow the rules at school, and if you don’t, you’re going to be sent away, and –
Tennessee Watso…:So when you saw it, when you were watching this happen and it wasn’t fair, did you have any tools as a parent to say –
Jennifer Salaza…:I mean we addressed it with them a couple times, but they were just like, “Well she’s on probation and she has rules she has to follow.”
Tennessee Watso…:Jennifer says Larissa was still reeling from the sexual assault, but that trauma got kind of lost in the shuffle. Juvenile probation officers monitor who kids are hanging out with, what they’re doing on social media, whether they’re behaving at home, as well as their grades and attendance at school. Bad friends and bad grades aren’t a crime, but on probation, it can get kids sent away. This isn’t unique to Wyoming, but it happens here more.
Kathy Sizemore:And then once they’re in probation, that’s the real slippery slope.
Tennessee Watso…:Kathy Sizemore has been a teacher in Rock Springs since the 1980s. She didn’t have Larissa as a student, but she has taught a lot of kids who have been on probation.
Kathy Sizemore:I explain to the kids, it’s like you’re now on the radar and every little thing you do is going to be scrutinized, and whereas other kids can get away with it, you won’t be able to, and if you do enough naughty things or continue those behaviors that got you there in the first place, eventually, your probation might be revoked and they’ll take you back to court and so the judge can then say, “Well, this isn’t working. Let’s send you to a placement.”
Tennessee Watso…:And the threat of being incarcerated for slipping up on probation is real, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. Wyoming locks up kids for probation violations at a rate well above the national average, higher than neighboring states, and other states with small populations. Larissa resented the power probation had over her life. Even though she wasn’t charged with a drug-related offense, she was required to do routine urinalysis or UAs at the juvenile probation office. Jennifer says for a 13-year-old kid who had just been sexually assaulted, that was just too much.
Jennifer Salaza…:Having to like do UAs in front of somebody, she already struggled with her body and feeling like self-conscious and so like every time she would have to go do a UA and probation is standing in there, she would come out and she would cry to me and tell me how demeaning it was and that she didn’t want to like … Be like exposed in front of somebody.
Tennessee Watso…:And it might sound simple, don’t do drugs and pass the UA. Behave on probation and you won’t be sent away. But for Larissa, behaving was hard because of the intense emotions she felt. That’s not unusual, according to research from the Justice Department, which says up to 70% of juvenile offenders have a diagnosable mental health condition, often caused by trauma, and because teen brains aren’t fully developed, they often make irrational decisions anyway. In Larissa’s case, after asking a friend for alcohol on Facebook, she was scared her probation agent would see and send her away. She panicked and took a bunch of pills.
Jennifer Salaza…:I was on my way to go to Walmart and she comes running out to the driveway and I said, “Oh, you’re going to go?” So I opened the car door thinking she was just going to jump in and go and she said, “No Mom, I took some pills and I took a whole bunch of them and I think I’m going to die from it.” I instantly panicked and I rushed her to the ER.
Tennessee Watso…:While Larissa was treated with charcoal to absorb the pills, Jennifer sat with her in the hospital.
Jennifer Salaza…:She looks at me and she says, “Does people even care that people get assaulted and that their lives are never the same?” I said, “I care.” She said, “Yeah, but does anybody else?” I said, “I think they do.” She said, “How do they care when I’m put on probation and I’m treated like a criminal?” She said, “I hate this, I hate probation, and I hate that I can’t just be a normal kid.”
Tennessee Watso…:After the suicide attempt, a judge sent Larissa to a psych hospital on the opposite side of the state for a few weeks, then directly to the Girls School, a state juvenile facility. Jennifer says she wanted to give Larissa a ride from the hospital to the Girls School, to ease the transition. But that wasn’t allowed.
Jennifer Salaza…:And I asked if she could come home. I said, “Well, can we visit her?” She said, “No, we’re going to transport her directly from WBI.”
Tennessee Watso…:Chris Jones, who runs the Wyoming Girls School, says most of the girls sent to the facility have been through some trauma. That’s why judges send girls there.
Chris Jones:Judges know that when the kids get here they are going to get therapy and good schooling and they’re going to be safe and I think that plays into it.
Tennessee Watso…:The place feels like a boarding school, with a big quad surrounded by dorms with views of the mountains in the distance. But the girls can’t leave so even though it doesn’t look like incarceration, it is. Chris says the goal is to help girls, not punish them. It’s a lesson she learned years ago when a girl wouldn’t take a babysitting class.
Chris Jones:And this young woman refused to go. She threw a fit. So she got a consequence. We addressed the behavior, she got a consequence, and her therapist came to me on Monday and said, “You know she was severely molested by a babysitter.” It was just like the scales fall off. We still have to address behavior, but if you understand what’s behind the behavior, what’s driving the behavior rather than just addressing the behavior, then you have the hope of changing permanently.
Tennessee Watso…:Chris says being sent away from your community and family is dramatic enough. Her goal is not to add to that. Jennifer says the separation was hard on Larissa, but the Salazars made the five hour trek sometimes across icy roads to visit as often as they could. Jennifer saw that Larissa had access to activities that were hard to come by at home in Rock Springs. Therapy there helped to rebuild trust with her family, horseback riding and yoga made her feel good, and she was into the small classes and individualized learning. But Chris Jones says it’s when girls go home that things fall apart.
Chris Jones:If they’re successful here that’s great. But the key is making that transfer into the home community.
Tennessee Watso…:And not every community is on board with that trauma-informed approach, or makes it as easy for kids to stay engaged in positive activities. Jennifer has the discharge papers from Larissa’s trip to the Girls School, which show she was both scared and excited about going back to Rock Springs.
Jennifer Salaza…:It says that although she has skills to avoid resorting to old and negative learned behaviors, she knows that there will be many pressures and it will be up to her think of consequences before she acts.
Tennessee Watso…:She matured from her eight months at the Girls School, but Larissa was put right back on probation when she got home.
Jennifer Salaza…:Because every time they release them –
Tennessee Watso…:Then they’re on probation.
Jennifer Salaza…:They’re on probation again.
Tennessee Watso…:And within four months, she was back at the Girls School for violating her probation. Jennifer says Larissa got caught sneaking out of the house, drinking, and hanging out with someone on her no contact list.
Jennifer Salaza…:It just … I don’t know. It seems very harsh to me but me and my husband just obeyed because you’re under a court order and that’s what you do.
Tennessee Watso…:The judge calling the shots on Larissa’s the case was Nena James. In 2019, she stepped down after running the juvenile court in Sweetwater County for close to 20 years. She doesn’t remember the specifics of Larissa’s case, but was willing to talk more generally about her approach to juvenile justice.
Nena James:I think the reason I was so passionate about kids is because I have kids of my own. I sat there as a mother as much as a judge.
Tennessee Watso…:She says she wanted what was best for kids and that meant holding them to high standards. Something she was worried wasn’t happening at home or in school.
Nena James:Kids are allowed to retake tests if they do bad and I’m only thinking what is that about? We’re preparing kids for the workforce. They can’t not do their work on time. This is awful.
Tennessee Watso…:When kids appeared in her court, the buck stopped there. Her approach was to hold them accountable and hopefully get them back on track.
Nena James:And so I saw an out of home placement in some cases as a very, very beneficial thing to one keep the kids safe, keep them alive, so you can help them and then two, get them that help, the counseling and the resources that we didn’t have locally.
Tennessee Watso…:This is something I heard a lot in my reporting, that because Wyoming is so huge and many counties have such small populations, they can’t support local programs to help kids who’ve gotten in trouble. But Judge James says sending kids away is not just about resources. She believes it also teaches them an important lesson.
Nena James:And hope that while they were out of their homes they kind of grew up a little bit. Sometimes you have to have things taken away from you before you understand how much you really like them, you know?
Tennessee Watso…:James says she’s heard positive feedback.
Nena James:I have gotten so many letters from so many kids who have told me that if I hadn’t intervened in their lives, they wouldn’t be where they are.
Tennessee Watso…:I talked to people who said that too, but Jennifer has some different feedback for Judge James. She says during that second stint at the Girls School, Larissa lost hope that she’d ever get out of the system. Being sent back changed Larissa, and not for the better.
Jennifer Salaza…:She learned things in there that I don’t think she would have ever learned at home. Self-mutilation, how to strangle yourself until you can’t breathe anymore and you pass out and then you wake up. Like I don’t know, we didn’t do that at home.
Tennessee Watso…:Jennifer told me she was worried about Larissa’s safety. Her daughter wasn’t the same person anymore.
Al Letson:The psychological harm kids like Larissa experience when they’re uprooted from their families, schools and communities is why many states are working to reduce juvenile incarceration. But Wyoming is resisting.
Speaker 9:If there’s no one holding them accountable, then what motivation do they have to change their practice?
Al Letson:When we come back, the reasons Wyoming isn’t changing course when it comes to juvenile justice. You’re listening to Reveal.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. We’re looking at Wyoming’s high juvenile incarceration rate, and why the state has done little to address the problem. In a story we first brought you in March, Tennessee Watson takes a look at what’s standing in the way and what that means for kids like Larissa Salazar.
Tennessee Watso…:When Larissa came home from her second trip to the Girls School, the transition was rough.
Jennifer Salaza…:She was very clammed up and like wouldn’t share a lot of stuff.
Tennessee Watso…:Larissa had been gone for 16 months, even though her initial charge for battery carries a maximum six month sentence, and after all that time, she barely knew her two younger siblings, who were just two and four.
Jennifer Salaza…:And they almost felt like they were strangers.
Tennessee Watso…:Jennifer says Larissa felt disconnected at school too.
Jennifer Salaza…:She felt behind from like the Girls School to like regular high school. She didn’t have a group of friends anymore. She had now been away two years almost.
Tennessee Watso…:She had a lot to adjust to and was still dealing with the pressure of being back on juvenile probation.
Tennessee Watso…:The office where kids go to meet with their probation agent and to do urinalysis is in the basement of a building in downtown Rock Springs. The waiting area has bowls of candy and condoms. There are motivational posters on the wall, and I am here to meet with Karin Kelly.
Karin Kelly:I am the Director of Sweetwater County Juvenile Probation.
Tennessee Watso…:She’s worked in the program for over 20 years.
Tennessee Watso…:What do you see in your work that makes you feel like, “Yeah, this is making a difference?”
Karin Kelly:We really focused on kind of those little wins. The kid who has failed math for a year passed their math test on Friday. That’s a win.
Tennessee Watso…:The ultimate goal is for kids to complete probation, but Karin says that’s definitely challenging.
Karin Kelly:One student or juvenile who doesn’t have substance abuse issues, passing those drug tests is a very easy part of their probation. Another kid who has academic problems, the requirement of going to school every day and being on time to your classes and making progress and doing the best you can at school, that sometimes becomes the hard part. But I think it is hard. I think it’s hard once you get in the system to work yourself back out. That is difficult.
Tennessee Watso…:But she says not every kid who violates probation is immediately sent away. They try first to refer them to services, like tutoring and counseling, to see if that helps.
Karin Kelly:And so we can make those referrals, we can help with those interventions. But it really is up to that juvenile and that family to take advantage of that and some do and some don’t.
Tennessee Watso…:Karin says there is a balance between helping kids and holding them to what the prosecutor and judge ordered.
Karin Kelly:We are here trying to help them comply with that court order. We don’t have a lot of wiggle room and leeway anymore than the kid does.
Tennessee Watso…:Jennifer says beyond counseling, there wasn’t much else to help Larissa stay on track. The Girls School offered structured, positive activities. But Karin says probation doesn’t provide that.
Karin Kelly:It’s a lot of compliance checks and referring and identifying what other community programs are there but we don’t provide a lot of that programming.
Tennessee Watso…:She’d like to offer more, but she says the county doesn’t have the money. So how many kids make it through probation and how many are sent away? Karin can’t answer that, which she immediately realizes is a problem.
Karin Kelly:You asked some very basic questions that I don’t have answers to and I should have answers to.
Tennessee Watso…:That’s because in Wyoming, each county decides what to do when kids get in trouble, and they all do it differently. Some counties believe incarceration is necessary, others don’t. Some send kids to adult courts, while others send them to juvenile courts, or a mixture of both. On top of that, Wyoming doesn’t require counties to follow what happens to kids once they’re in the system. So there’s no way to track whether kids are being rehabilitated or not.
John Tuell:If you’re not required to collect data to show that it’s not working, it’s much easier to stick to it.
Tennessee Watso…:That’s John Tuell, from the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice. He spent the last 25 years helping communities rethink how they deal with kids who get in trouble. But he hasn’t worked in Wyoming. He says that’s because juvenile justice just hasn’t been a priority for the state.
John Tuell:I mean I don’t mean to laugh in a tragedy but I think Wyoming may have the corner on the market.
Tennessee Watso…:For many years, Wyoming was the only state not to participate in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The 1974 legislation provides federal funds to states that agree to do things like decrease the use of incarceration for low level offenses and to monitor racial and ethnic disparities. From 1996 to 2001, John worked for the Department of Justice administering the program. But he says Wyoming declined the federal dollars and continued to do things its own way.
John Tuell:They have a long history of that absence of partnership and therefore absence of accountability to the federal government.
Tennessee Watso…:John says that partnership ended up helping kids in many states and Wyoming missed out. The interesting thing is John used to believe more in punishment than rehabilitation.
John Tuell:In my younger days, I guarantee you that I worked against what the research would say works now.
Tennessee Watso…:Before working at the DOJ, he worked as a juvenile probation agent in Virginia for close to 20 years.
John Tuell:My approach was if I hold them accountable for the conditions that were imposed by the court, they now have some structure, some discipline, and some ability to overcome adversity. That’s what my job was.
Tennessee Watso…:But then John says he realized he was just pushing kids deeper into the system and not helping them overcome the trauma and instability causing their delinquent behavior. He says programs that give kids positive interactions and experiences and focus on helping them feel safe and supported make the biggest difference. But John learned that lesson the hard way.
John Tuell:I think I had a role in the ultimate demise of three kids that I worked with, and that was their own self-demise by suicide.
Tennessee Watso…:And that heartbreaking realization didn’t come right away.
John Tuell:To argue that I had an epiphany with their passing, that I needed to look at a different approach, that would be too Hollywood. I didn’t feel that way at the time.
Tennessee Watso…:He says he was able to overlook those deaths because there was no oversight. He was holding kids accountable for their actions, but no one was holding him accountable. He says that’s what’s happening in Wyoming.
John Tuell:I mean they get to tell an anecdotal story that might signify success. But if they don’t have results or data, they’re not forced to confront the fact that what they’re doing is unsuccessful or works against what the research says and who pays? Well the kids pay.
Tennessee Watso…:Kids like Larissa, and that’s what Jennifer didn’t want to talk about in front of her husband Andrew when she arranged to meet with me at the park. Jennifer says when Larissa came back from her second trip to the Girls School and was put on probation, she hit an all-time low.
Jennifer Salaza…:It’s almost like she was like going into a depression and I reached out to probation, and her probation officer wasn’t there but I talked to the supervisor and I said, “Look, I don’t know how to help her.” I said, “She’s not bad in the home. Like she’s very respectable, she was doing what she needs to do.” I said, “But I see there’s something going on with her emotionally.”
Tennessee Watso…:Jennifer says she wanted probation to ease off, to let Larissa adjust to school. She wanted probation to call and tell Larissa she was doing a good job.
Jennifer Salaza…:And she says, “Well, your probation officer is not in right now. I can leave a message. We can try to call her, maybe schedule a meeting,” and I said, “Well I kind of need this to happen like ASAP. The feeling is not right to me.” I said, “We need to do something for her.” She says, “Okay, well we can figure it out. I’ll give you a call back.”
Tennessee Watso…:Jennifer says she made that call on Tuesday. Two days later, Andrew found Larissa dead in her room. She had taken her own life.
Jennifer Salaza…:Even to the last week of her life, I called and I tried to get help for her.
Tennessee Watso…:Jennifer says Larissa was failed.
Tennessee Watso…:Is it fair to lay Larissa’s death entirely at the feet of Wyoming’s juvenile justice system? Probably not. Sadly, there were too many traumatic things in Larissa’s life to isolate just one cause of her suicide. She had her ups and downs mentally from the time she was a little kid, but from Jennifer’s perspective, the juvenile justice system made things worse.
Jennifer Salaza…:Would she have benefited more from not being institutionalized but having more interaction, like here locally, to where she could get help that she needed and still be here with us?
Tennessee Watso…:I went to meet with the two juvenile probation agents who worked Larissa’s case, Diana Melton and Crystal Britt.
Tennessee Watso…:Hey.
Crystal Britt:Hi, come on in.
Diana Melton:We’ll go in here because Crystal –
Tennessee Watso…:I wanted to know if Larissa’s suicide made them rethink their work.
Crystal Britt:Not make me rethink anything but it is just you feel for that family. You never forget any of that.
Tennessee Watso…:Crystal says while she doesn’t 100% agree with everything about the juvenile justice system, she thinks they do more good than harm.
Crystal Britt:I think there is a lot of pressure but life has a lot of pressure and you have to learn that. Adults don’t always handle the pressure all that well either. She was a good kid and it was terrible what happened. But a lot of parents say, “Well you’re putting a lot of stress on my kid. You’re putting a lot of my stress on my kid and my family.” I don’t really know how else to say it and I don’t want to sound rude but we didn’t put you here.
Tennessee Watso…:And once kids end up on probation, there are limited options Diana and Crystal can offer them. No matter how much they want to help. Judge Gary Hartman says Wyoming’s use of probation and incarceration has more to do with the system’s own momentum than what’s actually good for kids.
Gary Hartman:There has been a tradition to say, “You’re going to be in court. You’re going to have to answer to this.” I think that’s a hard thing to break. It’s difficult to turn the ship.
Tennessee Watso…:When Hartman was a juvenile court judge, he tried to steer his district in a new direction. He looped in social workers and educators who knew the kids who ended up in his courtrooms, and as a team, they made decisions about what would help the most. That approach became state law and now all juvenile court judges have to take recommendations from a community team. But people who serve on those teams say they end up sending kids away to places like the Girls School because resources aren’t available locally. Right now, Hartman says there’s no incentive to change that.
Gary Hartman:The state is the one that actually pays the bill when these kids go into placement.
Tennessee Watso…:In other words, it’s cheaper for counties to send troubled kids away because it’s the state that covers the cost.
Gary Hartman:So instead of working in the community to try and solve the problem, I think prosecutors and judges too will send the kid out to say, “Out of sight, out of mind, we’re not going to worry about them for six or eight months. We’ll worry about them when they come back.”
Tennessee Watso…:For counties that want to build programs to keep kids out of the justice system and in their own communities, they mostly pay for that on their own because the state sets aside very little money for that. But even if the state gave money to counties for local programs –
Gary Hartman:That doesn’t mean that it’s going to solve the problem with keeping the kids in the community.
Tennessee Watso…:That’s because the state provides very little oversight. Right now, counties aren’t forced to measure whether they’re actually helping kids. I wanted to find out if the state was willing to put that kind of pressure on counties so I called up Governor Mark Gordon.
Tennessee Watso…:Hey, it’s Tennessee calling.
Tennessee Watso…:He’s a Republican who’s been in office for two and a half years.
Tennessee Watso…:What role should the state play in reducing juvenile incarceration rates?
Mark Gordon:Well Tennessee, you know obviously it’s an evolving issue and so I think that conversation at a statewide level is very valuable. But the issue in Wyoming for a long time has been dealt with on a local level and we are a local control state and that’s always been sort of the tradition there.
Tennessee Watso…:But that tradition has costs. Costs for young people who end up incarcerated at higher rates, costs for their longterm well-being because the state’s model doesn’t require counties to prove their approach is working. And it’s costing the state a lot of money. I looked at what Wyoming has spent on juvenile justice for the last 10 years, and Sweetwater County, where Larissa was from, cost the state more than any other county and it’s mostly for sending kids to juvenile facilities. Sweetwater spends more than even the most populated county, home to the state capital, Cheyenne. This is at a time when Wyoming needs to save money. The state gets most of its revenue from taxes on coal, oil and gas. But with those industries in decline, the state budget has been shrinking and that’s only gotten worse with the pandemic.
Tennessee Watso…:Given the financial situation we’re in, why not put some pressure on the counties to try and figure out a more affordable, more effective way to deal with troubled kids?
Mark Gordon:You know, in terms of the term pressure, my sense is it’s much better as a conversation because then we’re all going to arrive at a much better solution and I think the points you’re making about community-based approaches, those are always better, but we have had a massive change in our revenue picture. Huge reductions and I think everybody’s just trying to get through to the next day before we have a chance to really sit down and say, “Okay, now let’s reallocate our resources.”
Tennessee Watso…:State revenue has gone down so much that the legislature made across the board cuts. That included eliminating the small amount the state did give for community-based programs. In the meantime, prosecutors and judges are not being asked to send fewer kids away.
Al Letson:If Wyoming wanted to figure out how to help kids who get in trouble, and at the same time save money, it wouldn’t have to look far to get ideas. Next up, we go to South Dakota. That state had high juvenile incarceration rates like Wyoming, but in the last five years, decided to try something different. You’re listening to Reveal.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. When we met Jennifer Salazar at the park, she was thinking about leaving Wyoming. She didn’t want to take a chance on her younger children getting caught in its juvenile justice system, like her daughter Larissa did. If Jennifer wanted to find a state that’s taking a different approach for kids who run into trouble, she could go to South Dakota. It’s just one state over to the east and for many years was similar to Wyoming with high juvenile incarceration rates. But then South Dakota caught on to what a lot of other states had already figured out. Kids who are incarcerated are more likely to get in trouble again, whereas kids who receive support close to home are not. So South Dakota decided to change direction. Tennessee Watson picks up the story in a rural community that’s trying this new approach to juvenile justice.
Tennessee Watso…:Mitchell, South Dakota’s big claim to fame is the Corn Palace. The building’s exterior is decorated with mosaics made from different colored corn kernels. I catch a glimpse of it on my way to meet Katie Buschbach at the local rec center. She’s waiting outside for me with a big smile on her face.
Katie Buschbach:Let’s go ahead and we’ll take [inaudible].
Tennessee Watso…:Katie works for Davidson County, where Mitchell is located, and it’s her job to keep kids out of lockup and in the community. That includes coordinating a diversion program to keep them out of the courts. Today, Katie is trying something new, because she noticed a lot of the kids in her program weren’t involved in afterschool activities.
Tennessee Watso…:Do you know why that’s happening?
Katie Buschbach:I would say a lot of it is mom and dad are at work, maybe their second job and they can’t take them to those appointments or to practices and things like that. So it makes it hard for some of those kids to be able to do that.
Tennessee Watso…:But that unsupervised time after school is when kids get in trouble. So she started up a program on Wednesday evenings to give them a little extra support, and she asked the rec center to host it because every kid can get a ride here on a school bus.
Tennessee Watso…:Katie is expecting three girls to show up today, and as they arrive, volunteer Ashley Anson is pulling out art supplies. But Ashley’s not an art teacher. She’s a lawyer who takes court appointed cases to represent low income families, and she felt frustrated by the juvenile justice system.
Ashley Anson:I felt sort of helpless in the courtroom. Like I can give a sentencing argument any day, but really I don’t feel like it’s very helpful. You’re kind of stuck with whatever parameters are available.
Tennessee Watso…:For a long time, probation or incarceration felt like the only options for kids who got in trouble. Ashley didn’t want kids sent away, but she wasn’t sure they would get what they needed sticking around town. She says Katie’s work has given her and the kids a local option.
Ashley Anson:It helped me immensely in my job as a defense attorney.
Tennessee Watso…:Tonight, Ashley is facilitating a workshop on smashbooking. It’s like a feistier and less organized version of scrapbooking.
Ashley Anson:Okay, we’re going to start out focusing on the negative emotions, but it will end on a happy positive note, I promise. [inaudible]
Tennessee Watso…:She asked the girls in the group to share negative thoughts they have about themselves that might get them in trouble. An eighth grader who goes by the name Marie jumps in.
Marie:[inaudible] don’t want to drink or you don’t want to smoke with them [inaudible] just like bash you for it.
Tennessee Watso…:Marie is hard to hear through her mask. She’s talking about feeling pressure from friends to drink and smoke and Ashley helps Marie think through how that leads to negative feelings about herself.
Ashley Anson:So the negative idea you have about what they’d think of you if you say no would be you aren’t friendable, you can’t fit in.
Marie:[inaudible] uncool.
Ashley Anson:I’m uncool. That’s perfect.
Tennessee Watso…:Ashley asked the girls to write some of those negative beliefs on a blank sheet of paper.
Ashley Anson:There’s gel pens up here, colored pencils, markers, Sharpies, whatever you want to use.
Tennessee Watso…:And the girls spend some time modge podging over the negativity with layers of positive words and images they’ve cut from magazines. Marie says tonight was helpful. She hadn’t realized how the pressure from friends to do drugs impacted her self-esteem.
Marie:I don’t like saying no. It’s just something that I struggle with and since I’ve been friends with them for so long, it’s just hard to drop friends that you’re like close with.
Ashley Anson:how come you’re here and they’re not?
Marie:I got caught with the most things and they didn’t, so …
Ashley Anson:Okay.
Marie:It’s fine. I want to get better. I want to stop, so … It’s probably for the best anyway.
Tennessee Watso…:Even with realizations like that, Katie says behavior doesn’t change right away.
Katie Buschbach:It doesn’t matter if it’s a kid or an adult. I mean we all make poor choices at some point and it’s going to take repetition to learn that. So instead of saying, “Okay, we tried a diversion one time with you and you should have learned, now you’re going to have to face the consequences.” We’re teaching them how to make a better decision the next time.
Tennessee Watso…:This approach isn’t just about nice. It’s based on the well-researched fact that kids’ brains are different from adults’. The frontal lobe that controls how we respond to our emotions isn’t fully developed until we’re in our twenties. In other words, Katie says –
Katie Buschbach:Kids are just hardwired to do stupid stuff.
Tennessee Watso…:And no amount of punishment is going to change that. But figuring out the stresses kids are feeling and giving them steady, positive reinforcement does help them make better choices. Katie’s job is to coordinate that support, but not so long ago, Katie’s job didn’t exist.
Tennessee Watso…:So what changed? Well, for almost two decades, South Dakota had the highest juvenile incarceration rates in the country, right along with Wyoming. In South Dakota, 70% of the kids incarcerated there were locked up for low level offenses or violating probation. This was costing the state a ton of money, up to $144,000.00 per kid a year, and it didn’t work. Nearly half the young people released from state facilities were locked up again within three years. Those numbers caught the attention of Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard. He also saw that states that moved towards community-based alternatives had lower recidivism rates and were saving money. He wanted that for South Dakota. But he had to convince lawmakers who thought kids who broke rules should be punished and sent away. The argument that it would save money helped win them over.
Tennessee Watso…:In 2015, Daugaard signed comprehensive juvenile justice reforms into law, and by the time he gave his State of the State address in 2017, South Dakota was starting to see results.
Dennis Daugaard:Now the statutory purpose of our juvenile justice system is rehabilitation, and locking up youth has been shown to make them more likely to commit crimes as adults. The reforms invested $6.1 million in expanded community-based treatment.
Tennessee Watso…:Within five years of those reforms, the total number of incarcerated youth in South Dakota declined by half. So did the juvenile corrections budget, from close to $30 million down to $15. South Dakota funnels a portion of that savings back to communities that run successful diversion programs. In Wyoming, incentives like that don’t exist. Katie’s program in Davidson County has seen success in part because of how it collaborates with schools.
Shane Thill:Come on in here.
Tennessee Watso…:Shane Thill welcomes me into a conference room. He’s the director of Mitchell’s alternative high school, Second Chance Academy. He says before South Dakota’s juvenile justice reform, he watched kids bounce in and out of facilities.
Shane Thill:And they’d be gone for six months, a year, whatever. And what we would notice is when they would come back, they were okay for about a week. But then after that, basically all hell broke loose and boom, they’re gone again.
Shane Thill:So the frustration was how are you going to help these individuals become stronger community members if they’re not within the community and if they don’t really learn how to be a positive citizen within the community.
Tennessee Watso…:Shane says schools now play an important role in keeping kids local because staff spend a lot of time with them. When they see bad behavior or mental health issues, they can intervene before things spiral out of control.
Shane Thill:This is a very frustrating population to deal with, but you have to set aside your own frustration and understand that this kid just watched his mother get beat to a pulp by a boyfriend and now you want him to do 40 math problems? It’s like it’s not going to happen because he is not functionally situated emotionally to handle that right now.
Tennessee Watso…:Shane says the key to supporting kids who are struggling is making sure they show up at school. That’s where Katie Buschbach comes in. In addition to coordinating the county’s diversion program, she’ll go find kids who are absent.
Katie Buschbach:I love going to get kids to take them to school. It’s my favorite thing in the world and I’m not being sarcastic. I love going and picking kids up in the morning and helping them get to school. I’m just kind of making it a bright spot in the day. Being silly, goofy, playing some music on the way to school.
Tennessee Watso…:This hasn’t always been Katie’s MO. Once upon a time, she was a juvenile probation agent, playing hardball with kids who cut class. But get this. She lost that job because of South Dakota’s juvenile justice reform.
Tennessee Watso…:So when the reform happened and your job was cut and were you like, “Oh, this will be great for kids?” Or were you like, “What the hell?”
Katie Buschbach:I was not excited. I could be 100% honest about that. I was thinking this is going to be terrible. We’re going to see like an uprise in crime, the kids are going to be out of control, nobody’s going to be held accountable. But that’s not the case whatsoever. It’s the complete opposite. The kids are getting a chance to make a dumb decision and be a kid but not having to be a criminal because they’ve made that bad decision.
Tennessee Watso…:How did you make that transition like from the probation mentality to where you are now? What was it that helped you?
Katie Buschbach:It was honestly seeing the numbers in how the diversion was working. If I was not in charge of seeing those numbers and the statistics of the success in the program, I think it would have been really hard for me to actually wrap my brain around that it does work.
Tennessee Watso…:Katie has that data because South Dakota requires that counties track what happens to kids in the justice system. The numbers show before the reforms when more kids were being sent away, about 50% of them would get in trouble again. Katie says for kids in her program, it’s about 8%, and the data shows what still needs improving. Like how there are disproportionately more young people of color entering the system. Katie says she wants to bring that number down in Davidson County. And for each kid who completes Katie’s diversion program, the state pays the county $220.00.
Katie Buschbach:There’s a reward for it in two different aspects. There is a financial reward but there is also the reward that this kid isn’t going to be coming into the system and we’re not essentially plugging this kid in and creating a criminal.
Tennessee Watso…:Not creating a criminal. That’s after all what the juvenile justice system is supposed to do. But after looking at this issue for the past year, it’s striking how different juvenile justice can look from one state to another. Wyoming puts its money towards sending kids away to incarceration. South Dakota funnels money to communities, to give kids the support they need close to home.
Tennessee Watso…:I took what I learned back to Jennifer Salazar, whose daughter Larissa took her own life after years in Wyoming’s juvenile justice system. Here’s what she had to say.
Jennifer Salaza…:I think it’s sad that us here in Wyoming, like I mean we live in a beautiful state. There is great people here, like why haven’t we implemented something like that so that that way our children can be better in their future?
Al Letson:Wyoming might lock kids up at nearly twice the national average, but it’s not alone. Alaska, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia also incarcerate kids at high rates. It’s up to leaders in those places to decide whether that’s a problem they want to fix. The federal government doesn’t have the authority to set juvenile justice rules, or to make local policymakers follow what the research says is good for kids.
Al Letson:Our show this week was produced by Tennessee Watson. She had help from Ada [inaudible], who also produced a comic about juvenile justice. Check it out on our website. Taki Telonidis edited the show. Thanks to South Dakota Public Broadcasting. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy “The Great” Mostafa. Score and sound design by the dynamic duo J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, My Man, Yo Arruda. They had helped this week from Brett Simpson, Amita Ganatra, Claire C-Note Mullen and Steven Rascon. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our interim CEO is Annie Chabel. Sumi Aggarwal is our interim editor in chief, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the In as Much Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.
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Speaker 25:From PRX.

Tennessee Watson is an education reporter for Wyoming Public Radio, where she also covers sexual violence, efforts to reduce violence, and criminal justice. She previously was an independent documentary radio producer and youth media educator. Her honors include an Abrams Nieman Fellowship for Local Investigative Journalism, a National Edward R. Murrow Award, four regional Murrow awards, and a 2016 Peabody Award nomination. In 2015, she was an International Women’s Media Foundation Fund for Women Journalists grantee.

Eda Uzunlar is a journalist and illustrator. She's from South Dakota, a first-generation Turkish-American, student at Yale University, and huge advocate for customized Spotify covers. Previously/presently she has worked with Wyoming Public Radio, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, NPR, and Reveal.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) was the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Brett Simpson (she/her) was an assistant producer for Reveal. She pursued a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where she focuses on audio, print and investigative reporting. She has received fellowships from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents’ Association and the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center. She is also the graduate researcher at UC Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program. Most recently, Simpson reported breaking news for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered the coronavirus outbreak in the San Francisco Bay Area for The New York Times. She received a bachelor's degree in English at Princeton University, where she twice won the Ferris Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Projects in Journalism.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is the production manager for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Kevin Sullivan is a former executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.