A photo of a corrections officer produced by the Wyoming Department of Corrections. With low pay and prisons housed in remote locations, the agency has struggled to retain officers, leading to staff shortages. (Department of Corrections)

Outside experts from the Council of State Governments presented lawmakers last week with targeted solutions to stem Wyoming’s ever-deepening prison crisis: Invest in substance abuse and mental health treatment for offenders and retool probation and parole programs.

Now it’s up to legislators on the Joint Judiciary Committee to move those fixes forward, a prospect that seemed far from certain at a committee meeting last week.

The analysts spent months reviewing Wyoming’s courts, jails, prisons and probation and parole programs, using a data-driven approach and their experience from other states. Their work in Wyoming, part of a broader national initiative, was requested by the Department of Corrections and endorsed by all three branches of state government.

Among the clearest results from CSG’s analysis was an opportunity to lower incarceration rates by supervising criminal offenders on probation and parole more effectively.

Last year the majority of prison admissions — 54 percent — came from offenders failing on probation and parole. The majority of those offenders failed not because they committed substantive new crimes but for violations of the conditions of their supervision — missing meetings with parole officers, falling behind on restitution fines or failing drug tests, for example.

Indeed, through drug tests or not, people often fail probation and parole because of untreated substance abuse and mental health challenges, researchers found. Those are the same untreated underlying problems that led the offenders to prison in the first place.

The good news is that taken together, those two problems — a lack of treatment options and high parole and probation failings — are addressable and offer a path forward for the state, CSG’s experts told lawmakers at a meeting of the Joint Judiciary Committee in Laramie last week. By investing in long under-resourced mental health and drug treatment centers and ensuring offenders receive care from those centers at timely moments during their reintegration to society, Wyoming can break the cycles that land many offenders back in handcuffs.  

The state can also reorganize its probation and parole system to enable supervision officers to focus on their clients during the times they are most likely to fail.

Joint Judiciary Committee Chairmen Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta), left, and Rep. Dan Kirkbride (R-Chugwater) listen to testimony during a committee meeting in Laramie on Sept. 21. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Other findings by CSG were more complex, however, and lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee expressed uncertainty about how best to proceed with the information they had been given. Some questioned whether the lawmakers should make laws based on CSG’s findings, or if it was more appropriate for judges, prosecutors and other players in the justice system to implement policy changes on their own.

Proponents for statutory changes — CSG researchers and Wyoming Department of Corrections officials chief among them — argued a strategy of suggesting but not legislating would be insufficient given the scope of Wyoming’s judiciary crisis.

The state spends an estimated $30 million a year just to incarcerate those failing probation and parole, according to the CSG. That’s one piece of a broader prison crisis that is costing the state millions of dollars and has completely filled Wyoming’s prisons, leading to 96 inmates being shipped to out of state cells rented from private prison companies. The Wyoming Department of Corrections is also paying county jails to hold long term prisoners, something jails, meant to be shorter-term holding facilities, are not designed to do.

“There’s no room at the inn,” has become something of a mantra for WDOC director Bob Lampert as he testifies to various legislative committees.

At current incarceration rates, Wyoming will have to build or contract space for 201 new prison beds by 2023, and without new policy, that additional cost won’t improve public safety in the state, according to corrections officials. Using WDOC data, the CSG researchers estimated the new beds would cost taxpayers more than $50 million by 2023.

The problem, and lawmakers’ failure to pass comprehensive justice reform in the past, is what led WDOC officials to invite CSG into the state. The researchers are in the midst of a systemwide review called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, aimed at identifying policy suggestions. With joint funding from Pew Charitable Trust and the U.S. Department of Justice, CSG has performed similar audits and brought best practices to bear in 31 states. Leaders of Wyoming’s three branches of government — the Legislature, Judiciary and the Executive — endorsed the review, as required by CSG before they engage with a state.

But with the leadership of each branch headed for turnover at the end of this year, the burden of turning solutions into law come January will fall on the shoulders of lawmakers on the Joint Judiciary Committee.

Having completed their initial review, CSG analysts will stay engaged with Wyoming and keep a presence in the state through the coming Legislative session.

Lawmakers wonder whether to make laws

The Judiciary Committee voted in Laramie last week to have LSO draft two bills that would place caps on probation and parole terms.

Most offenders who violate probation or parole do so within the first two to three years of their term, CSG researchers found. By ordering people into supervisory programs for four years or more, judges are stretching the resources of overworked probation and parole officers. By capping probation and parole sentencing, lawmakers could ensure that supervision officers can focus resources on offenders in the years when they’re most likely to fail.

Though the motion for bill drafts passed unanimously, lawmakers expressed concern about taking discretion away from the state’s judiciary branch.

“Why can’t we simply educate those folks [judges and the parole board] about front-loading and how ineffective the last two years are and then leave some discretion to them,” Sen. David Kinskey (R-Sheridan) asked. “Why can’t they do this? Why does it have to be a statutory change?”

Marc Pelka, Deputy Director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, said Wyoming’s statutes were currently “wide open” and that the lack of clear guidelines led to inconsistent sentencing around the state. CSG’s recommendation of a policy change took into account what’s worked in other states, Pelka said. 

Teton County 9th Judicial District Court Judge Timothy Day, on left, and Natrona County Circuit Court Judge Brian Christensen listen to a Sept. 21 meeting of the Joint Judiciary Committee where data-driven reform ideas were discussed. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Lampert also asked lawmakers for a statutory fix, saying it would provide consistency, ensure that reforms persist and stem prison growth.

But in a sign that old foes of reform efforts may surface again, the lone prosecutor who spoke at the meeting warned lawmakers against taking away local control.

“What you’re starting to get into is sentencing guidelines,” said Laramie County Attorney Peggy Trent. That would bind her decision making, she told lawmakers. She suggested the DOC was attempting a power grab that would allow it to unburden itself of inmates at the cost of public safety — an argument Wyoming prosecutors have made against criminal justice reform in the past.

“To allow this to all move internally in-house at DOC to just do what they want … frightens me,” Trent said.

Despite the numbers and the dire warnings from DOC, Trent also suggested Wyoming’s criminal justice system was functioning well enough, rendering change unnecessary. “As a prosecutor listening in and then taking it back to my colleagues … we’re going to say ‘it isn’t broken, what are you doing here,’” she said.

In areas where policy fixes weren’t as straightforward as capping probation and parole sentences, lawmakers asked LSO to work with CSG to fold their suggestions into legislation the lawmakers could work with. For example, lawmakers were uncertain how to proceed with a CSG suggestion that assessments of an offender’s likelihood of committing new crimes become a required part of probation and parole decisions.

Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert. (WDOC photo)

The committee also asked LSO to work with CSG to continue improving a sanctions program for probation and parole violators that could hold them accountable without imposing new prison terms. That’s similar to an initiative lawmakers passed into law last session, but which DOC officials say funding shortages have made difficult to implement.

Lawmakers did not take action on boosting the state’s substance abuse and mental health programs for the moment, though their lack has been repeatedly identified as a root cause of Wyoming’s prison problem. Part of the Judiciary Committee members’ decision to wait came from the fact that the Legislature’s Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee has undertaken a broad review of those programs under the leadership of Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette). Pelka said he will be briefing that committee at their meeting in October. 

Lawmakers’ endorsement far from ringing

Observers of criminal justice reform efforts in Wyoming will note once again the complexity of policy and the lack of strong proponents that have doomed previous attempts.  

Ultimately, the point of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is a system-wide change, based on a data-driven review of the state’s approach and analysis of what has worked elsewhere. The justice system is complex and unwieldy. Though the CSG researchers provided an unprecedented look at both the system’s hangups and possible solutions, lawmakers had merely two days to digest the information before being asked to act on those suggestions.

Of the 14 members of the Joint Judiciary Committee, three people have direct experience in law enforcement and the criminal justice system — there are two former sheriffs, and one current defense attorney. Another lawmaker, Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) is a lawyer experienced with civil and criminal appeals. The rest of the lawmakers on the committee come from a variety of backgrounds that don’t include direct experience with Wyoming’s courts, jails and prisons.

The learning curve on the criminal justice system is steep. Among the handouts to committee members and the public was a glossary of terms used in CSG’s report. Definitions of parole and probation were among them, as were definitions of more complex terminology like “cognitive-behavioral interventions” and the “Addiction Severity Index.”

House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Mark Jennings (R-Sheridan), center, consults with Rep. Tim Salazar (R-Dubois), left, during testimony from the Council of State Governments on justice reform in Laramie, Sept. 21. Rep. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) is on the right. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Briefly last week it seemed worries about circumventing local control and the sheer complexity of some of CSG’s policy suggestions would stun lawmakers into inaction, and that was just the Judiciary Committee. “We’ve got 80 some other lawmakers who haven’t had that input [from CSG],” noted Byron Oedekoven, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police.

Ultimately, acknowledging the scope of the problems facing the justice system, the committee rallied to continue advancing the reform process.

“I think the time is now,” said Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs). “We see the challenges and we have a targeted solution.”

Reform efforts in Wyoming have spanned a decade and this isn’t the first group of Joint Judiciary Committee lawmakers to consider the problem. Given lawmaker turnover and the complexity of the justice system, part of the obstacle to reform comes from the lack of lawmaker expertise, lawmakers said — by the time a Judiciary Committee learns the ropes of the system, they might not be in office long enough to act.

If lawmakers don’t act this session, Hicks said, they will lose the additional expertise brought into the state by CSG.

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Andrew Graham

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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