A collection of handwritten letters that Phoebe Stoner, director of the Equality State Policy Center, delivered Wednesday and Thursday to Senate President Eli Bebout, urging him to keep alive a bill to automatically restore voting rights to some felons. The letters indicate the degree of interest in justice matters in the Equality State. (Phoebe Stoner/Equality State Policy Center)

Senate President Eli Bebout said Thursday he would kill a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill supporters estimate would have saved $7.6 million a year, plus $13.5 million in prison-related construction costs.

Bebout said he would not assign the measure, which passed the House, to a Senate committee. The criminal justice reform bill, HB94, would have deferred incarceration of some criminal offenders and routed them instead to treatment and probation programs.

In addition to the cost savings, supporters say criminal offenders would reintegrate faster into society than they do through incarceration alone.

Bebout said he decided not to assign the bill because of disapproval from prosecuting attorneys, the more-than $2 million appropriation required to implement the new programs, and dissent from a member of the parole board. 

In addition to the initial appropriation, the LSO estimated that the measure would require additional annual spending of $2.5 million to support the program. The projection that estimated savings of $7.6 million per year took the recurring costs into account.

The Wyoming Board of Parole officially supported the bill. Of the six-member parole board, only one member opposed it, Director Daniel Fetsco said. Parole Board member Douglas Chamberlain, a former legislator who served as Speaker of the House from 1993-94, opposed the measure. Bebout served on House leadership at the same time. He said Chamberlain approached him with his concerns about the bill, but did not do so as a member of the parole board.

The bill also had support from the Department of Corrections. Legislators from both political parties supported the bill, which passed the House on a close 31-26 vote. Three lawmakers were excused.

Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert said he first asked for a review of the criminal justice system 13 years ago — he has been director since 2003. The Legislature ultimately agreed three years ago. He since has worked with lawmakers on the Joint Judiciary Committee and a group made up of prosecutors, victims groups and others with a stake in criminal justice. “Everybody you can think of,” had a role in discussing the bill, Lampert said.

The bill survived an unusual legislative process even before being stalled on Bebout’s desk. The bill was “laid back” a day before it was supposed to be heard by the House Judiciary Committee, after an association of county prosecutors and representatives from Gov. Matt Mead’s office intervened the night before. In a closed meeting that included prosecutors, representatives from the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections, but no legislators, a substitute bill was crafted and proposed to the committee.

Natrona prosecutor Blonigen opposed

One of the prosecutor’s concerns was that the bill did not include sufficient funding to maintain supervision programs for those diverted from the penitentiary system, Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen said in mid-January. Then, after its approval by the House Judiciary Committee, funding in the bill to pay for staffers to run new supervision programs was eliminated by the House Appropriations Committee.

Still, Lampert said, “we would’ve made it work.”

Meanwhile, Lampert’s department estimated the reforms would save the state $7.6 million a year by diverting people away from the DOC’s prisons. In addition, Lampert estimated the state would have saved an additional $13.5 million by avoiding the cost of constructing new prison space to house increasing numbers of offenders in the future.

The substitute bill gave prosecutors power equal to the courts when it came to choosing between parole or jail time. But House members removed some of that authority in the House Judiciary Committee, and then again on the floor of the House. Prosecutors could still argue against parole, but could not veto its use.

Along with the money saved, Board of Parole Executive Director Daniel Fetsco said he believed the bill made ethical sense.

“The bill represented a step in the direction of reducing our prison population in a smart and safe manner,” he wrote in an email, “hopefully returning more offenders to the community as contributing members of society.”

Like Lampert, Fetsco pointed to the many stakeholders and long history behind the bill.

“The Board of Parole, the DOC, the prosecutors, members of the judiciary, the Chiefs and Sheriff’s Association, the State Public Defender, the Adult Community Corrections programs, and other community stakeholders all worked collaboratively to create the proposed legislation,” he wrote. “It’s a shame that the bill will not even get a chance to be heard in the Senate.”   

“A lot of effort was put in by a lot of people,” Bebout said. “But that’s the process. If it’s a good idea it’ll be back.”

A similar effort at reform in 2016 began in the Senate, though Lampert said it had not been as well vetted by other institutions in the criminal justice system as this year’s measure. The 2016 legislation passed committee, but was never brought up for debate on the Senate floor and died without a vote.

Voting reform bill for felons makes it to committee

Supporters were also worried about the fate of a second bill dealing with the criminal justice system, sponsored by Rep. James Byrd (D, HD-44, Cheyenne). House Bill 75 would automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who had completed their sentence.

Byrd said Wednesday he was concerned about the bill’s fate and believed Bebout would not assign it. However after supporters unleashed a flood of emails and letters, the Senate President assigned the bill late in this morning’s session.

In Wyoming, non-violent felons have to wait five years after completing their sentence, and go through an application process Byrd described as “onerous,” to restore their voting rights. The bill would make that process automatic, removing a burden on felons and the state and allowing them to reintegrate back into society more smoothly, said Phoebe Stoner, director of the Equality State Policy Center.

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Stoner asked voters to write emails urging Bebout to introduce the bill, and Tuesday and Wednesday night held letter writing parties in Laramie and Cheyenne, respectively. Bebout introduced and assigned the bill late Thursday morning. It was the only bill he introduced, though nine other House-passed bills still await committee assignment. If not assigned by the end of day, they will most likely die.

“Of course who knows what’s happening behind the scenes, but we asked folks to speak out on this issue, and people really resonated with it and people cared about it,” Stoner said.

Stoner and another lobbyist delivered forty handwritten letters asking for the bill to be heard to Bebout yesterday and this morning. “We really commend President Bebout for listening to the citizens,” she said. 

The felon voting rights bill faces a Friday deadline for clearance by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

This story was edited Feb. 28, 2017 to clarify recurring costs of the criminal justice reform proposal — Ed.

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. Please clarify two parts of your story that are incorrect. When I was Speaker of the House, then Rep. Bebout was not in any leadership position, and the last fiscal note I saw indicated that tbe cost was approximately $5M over the next 2 years.

    1. Senate President Eli Bebout, a Republican, served as House Minority Whip for the Democratic Party when Mr. Chamberlain served as House Speaker.

      This story has been changed to clarify the recurring costs of the criminal justice reform proposal.