Washakie County Sheriff Steve Rakness listens to a Joint Judiciary Committee meeting in Worland in May. The meeting was the first time the committee took testimony from outside researchers with the Council of State Governments, who are guiding Wyoming through the next step in its quest to reform a packed prison system. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Wyoming is taking another shot at comprehensive criminal justice reform, this time with a program backed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In Worland last week, lawmakers on the Joint Judiciary Committee heard from researchers from the nonpartisan Council of State Governments. The CSG is bringing to Wyoming a program called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative — funded largely by the DOJ and the Pew Charitable Trusts — that has assisted 30 states. The CSG researchers will spend the summer and fall meeting with the parties involved in Wyoming’s criminal justice system. They will then suggest policy options to the judiciary committee before the 2019 legislative session.

It’s not the first time an outside organization has taken a look at the state’s justice system with an eye toward reform — Pew sent researchers to the state in 2014, and the judiciary committee has been studying growth in Wyoming’s prison population for more than a decade. Past efforts have largely failed to turn into policy, though the Legislature passed some limited reforms in the most recent session.

Lawmakers and the CSG researchers expressed optimism about this new comprehensive effort, largely because of its endorsement by leaders of the three branches of Wyoming’s government. Still, a prominent prosecutor indicated he and his colleagues have doubts about the effort — and prosecutors in Wyoming have doomed reform efforts they didn’t like before.

Senate President Eli Bebout, Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, Gov. Matt Mead and Chief Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court James Burke all signed off on the state’s request to participate in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Mead and Bebout’s support is of note because both men played a role in the failure of a comprehensive package of criminal justice reform laws during the 2017 session. Mead enabled prosecutors to influence the legislation outside the public process, hurting its credibility with lawmakers. Bebout eventually killed the bill by holding it back from consideration on the Senate floor.

The Wyoming State Supreme court in Cheyenne. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

The new buy-in from those state leaders gave Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan), who has been a judiciary committee member since 2014, hope that this measure would succeed where past ones have failed. “It’s absolutely different,” he said. “I feel like we’re really going to get somewhere this time.”

State leaders have indicated that “we’re all of one mind,” Kinskey said. He described the message conveyed by state leaders as: “We really need to work across all departments to make this thing happen.”

Having that mandate should push law enforcement agencies seeking to punish offenders, the judges that decide those penalties, and the corrections officials seeking to stave off prison overflows to seek compromise. It’s a mandate seen as critical to success by experts in criminal justice reform.

“You have to have everybody at the table or it’s just going to fail,” Kinskey said.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative only engages with states in which all three branches of government have indicated a willingness to seek results, said Marc Pelka, the deputy director of state initiatives for the CSG’s Justice Center. “I think the willingness to participate is the standard we set for engagement,” he said.

It’s likely only four states will receive the level of investment from CSG that Wyoming will get this year, he said.

With the exception of Chief Justice Burke, however, there is a chance the men who signed the document will be out of power by the 2019 session. Mead’s time as governor is up in January, and tradition dictates that Harshman and Bebout serve only one term as House Speaker and Senate President. Harshman told WyoFile in March that he was considering bucking that tradition.

Approaching decision points

Earlier this spring, the Wyoming Department of Corrections transferred 88 prisoners from the state penitentiary in Rawlins to a private prison facility in Mississippi. It was just the latest indication that Wyoming’s correctional system is at capacity. Prison populations have continued to increase with sentencing practices, and an increasing number of people have been returning to lock-up on parole and probation violations in recent years — largely on drug and alcohol related crimes, officials say.

From 2005-2015, Wyoming’s prison population increased 18 percent, according to data compiled by CSG. It was the sixth-largest increase in the country for that period.

Last week, DOC director Bob Lampert told lawmakers he may ask the Legislature this year for money to build more prison beds at the state’s medium security facility in Torrington. There are inmates in county jails around the state, designed for short term stays, waiting for spaces in long-term prisons. The DOC would also like to bring the prisoners from Mississippi back as soon as possible, he told WyoFile in an interview following the meeting.

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Lampert does not want to build more prison capacity, he said, in part because that would likely slow the impetus for alternatives to incarceration that might lead to more criminal offenders getting treatment and being returned to their community quicker. There, they can be productive members of society as opposed to sitting in prison cells at a cost to the state, the thinking goes.

“We’re in the business of corrections not collections,” Lampert said. “We don’t want to collect more people we want to correct more people, and building more [prison] beds doesn’t really accomplish that goal.”

Prosecutors and funding pose obstacles

For the Justice Reinvestment Initiative to succeed, reform proponents may have to convince the state’s prosecutors that it won’t lead to criminals being released without sufficient supervision or behavioral treatment.

Prosecutors, led largely by longtime Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen, proved they had significant political power in 2017 when the last comprehensive reform effort failed. At the time, reform proponents accused Blonigen and other prosecutors of sitting on the sidelines while other parties in the criminal justice system worked together, and then sabotaging behind closed doors an effort they didn’t like.

Since that effort, however, Blonigen has been a presence at Joint Judiciary Committee interim meetings. In November 2017, Blonigen joined DOC Deputy Director Steve Lindly and House Judiciary Chairman Dan Kirkbride on a trip to the 50-State Summit on Public Safety in Washington D.C., held by the CSG. That trip led to Wyoming’s opportunity with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, Lindley told WyoFile.

But last week, Blonigen told lawmakers he still had doubts about whether Wyoming could handle the alternatives to incarceration that often define justice reforms. His chief concern is that the state lacks community resources — drug treatment and counseling options — that can keep people from reverting to criminal behavior after their release.

“Realize that these people are coming from a very broken past, most of them,” he told lawmakers. “And we’re going to have to go beyond substance abuse and we have to worry about education, we have to worry about criminal thinking. So what sort of cognitive behavior and counseling is available in the communities?”

But Blonigen, who has been prosecuting lawbreakers in Natrona County for 35 years, also expressed broader doubt in the ability of treatment programs to save criminal offenders. Some offenders face cultural challenges that the policy makers on hand couldn’t understand, he said.

“They have criminal thinking and I don’t mean something that’s going to be solved by a 4- to 12-hour class,” he told the committee. “They have deep, deep problems. They come up in families that are third-generational government dependent, third-generational criminal families — families that have been involved in criminal behavior, let’s put it that way. And those are very, very real things.”

The Joint Judiciary Committee receives testimony from Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen (foreground). (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

The prosecutor also questioned whether Wyoming’s justice system was as bad as officials portrayed it, saying he had seen it improve during his tenure “The idea that we are on the brink of disaster… I do not think is accurate,” he said.

Still, Blonigen said he was willing to engage with the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Initiative. At the initiative’s next step, a forum to be held in Cheyenne on June 11, he’ll sit on one of the panels. But, he said, among prosecutors there was widespread doubt about the initiative, particularly in rural counties with less available services for treating people who are released into the community instead of remaining incarcerated.

“I think it’s a real split [among prosecutors] right now,” he said. “It’d be hard to say there’s a consensus.”  

The political impetus to reduce government spending, and the state’s inability to find a clear replacement for revenue from the unstable energy industry, puts the criminal justice system in a bind. Department of Corrections officials face funding crunches that reduce their ability to deal with increasing prison populations or to develop more robust supervision programs for probation and parole. At the same time, several people at last week’s committee meeting alluded to the lack of substance abuse services in Wyoming communities. State funding for those programs has also seen cuts.  

In his presentation to lawmakers, the CSG’s Pelka noted that the number of people failing on parole increased by 91 percent — 37 people — over the last fiscal year. The increase followed the DOC’s decision to nearly eliminate substance abuse treatment programs from its facilities in the face of budget cuts last year.

“You might ask yourself ‘well what happened from 2016 to 2017?’,” Ed Risha, director of the Board of Parole, said to lawmakers. “Well, 2016 was when so many of the programs were defunded.”

Blonigen said the funding challenge was also a concern of his and of other prosecutors.

“There’s this coalition that exists in criminal justice reform between very progressive folks, and real conservative folks — the real conservative folks having the idea that this is a way to save money,” he said. “They can agree on reducing prison populations but they can’t agree on what to do instead.”

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. Prosecutors have blocked every effort at criminal justice reform (including reform of the juvenile justice system) in Wyoming for the past 50 years and will continue to do so as it interferes with their power and control of the system. I do agree with the Natrona County District Attorney on one aspect of his argument however: Wyoming does not have adequate mental health and support services for anyone in the community including parolees and probationers. The short sightedness of the legislature is clearly seen in the cuts to treatment for prisoners among many other cost cutting measures. These programs will not work without adequate funding for necessary services and for that we would have to have a legislature that can solve problems and not just cut programs.

  2. The legislature should not be setting mandatory sentences. That abrogates the separation of powers doctrine and attempts to intrude on the judiciary branch’s authority.