A bipartisan group of lawmakers pushed bills to ease pressure on Wyoming’s prison system and reform how Wyoming’s justice system penalizes offenders through the House of Representatives this week.

A bill lowering the felony threshold for a property offense and a bill creating alternatives to prison for probation and parole violators both passed the House. The chamber also passed a bill creating a route for post-conviction relief, and a bill making it easier to expunge juvenile offenses from a criminal record.

The bills came through the House Judiciary Committee, where Rep. Charles Pelkey, a Laramie Democrat and attorney, has been working with socially conservative Republicans like Reps. Nathan Winters (R-Thermopolis) and Scott Clem (R-Gillette), to pass criminal justice reform bills for the last two years.

In a House where the most relevant political divisions are within the dominant Republican party, criminal justice reform legislation often unites more libertarian Republicans with the chamber’s nine Democrats. Those two lawmaker blocs are frequently opposed on questions about taxes and the size of government, but align when it comes to bills dealing with drug penalties, prison sentences and reform opportunities for criminals.

“It transcends political affiliation,” Pelkey said of criminal justice reform in Wyoming in an interview Wednesday. “It draws a kind of libertarian streak in the right wing and a progressive attitude toward criminal justice on the left.”

Conservative Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) agreed with the Laramie Democrat. “It goes to the Fourth Amendment,” Halverson said, referring to the amendment to the U.S. Constitution against prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures. “It goes to the right to privacy. It goes to thinking that rehabilitation is possible.”

Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna)

All four bills now await committee hearings in the Senate, where criminal justice reform has hit opposition in the past.

Last year, a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill failed. After narrowly passing in the House, it was killed by Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) when he declined to introduce it. Prominent prosecutors and a member of the parole board helped derail the legislation.

In the months since the 2017 legislative session, pressures on the state’s prison system have continued to build. The Wyoming State Penitentiary is at capacity and most of the state’s other prisons are rapidly approaching or have reached that point. Lack of beds meant around 78 state inmates were being housed in county jails throughout the state at the end of February, according to a report from the Casper Star-Tribune.

A scaled down version of the 2017 criminal justice reform bill returned this year. House Bill 42 creates a system of graduated punishments — ranging from short stays in jail to mandatory treatment programs — for parole and probation violators. The bill can save the state money by deferring the need to build new prison cells, said Rep. Nate Winters (R-Thermopolis). It also nudges the judicial system towards being more rehabilitative and less punitive, Winters said.

That bill moved quickly through the House. It unanimously passed its final vote Tuesday.  On Thursday, Bebout assigned the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee assignment alone is a step forward for reform advocates. The morning before Bebout assigned the bill, ACLU of Wyoming Policy Director Sabrina King worried he might leave the bill to die on his desk.  

“If we could get these bills to the Senate floor it would pass,” she said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Leland Christensen (R-Alta) has yet to announce when his committee will hear the bill. Tuesday is the last day for a bill to pass through a committee in its second chamber. Monday was the original deadline before the LSO announced a schedule change on Friday.

Odd alliances

King, too, said that criminal justice reform has bipartisan appeal in Wyoming’s Legislature.

“It’s one of the few areas where you really are looking at policy and you’re not having a conversation about culture,” she said. “Those things can enter in but our criminal justice system is entirely about policy decisions that have been made over the last hundred years.”

This year, House Democrats helped push House Bill 55, which changes the levels of property offenses, over the hump. It passed by seven votes on its final reading in the House with all nine Democrats voting in favor.

Damaging or stealing property worth more than $1,000 in value is currently a felony. Doing the same to property worth less than that amount is a misdemeanor. HB-55 changes the felony level to $1,500. As originally drafted, the bill raised the felony level to $2,500, but the amount was amended down in the House Judiciary Committee. A similar attempt during the 2016 session survived the House, but died after the Senate Judiciary Committee did not consider it.

This year’s bill was sponsored by Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette), a social conservative and Baptist minister.

“We don’t want a lack of justice,” Clem told WyoFile, but the existing felony statutes are onerous.

“A felony hangs over a person,” he said. “It affects their [professional] license. It affects every time they apply for a job.”

Pelkey was one of Clem’s co-sponsors on the bill. The two are not traditional allies.

Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette) testifying before the House Judiciary Committee during the 2017 legislative session. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

“It makes me nervous when your name and my name are on the same bill, but in this case I’m proud to be your co-sponsor,” Pelkey said when the property offenses bill was introduced to the committee on Feb. 20.

In the past, King and the ACLU often opposed measures sponsored by Clem. “I don’t think we’ve seen eye to eye on many things,” King said. But she spoke to the committee in favor of Clem’s property offenses bill. She would like to see the property values for a felon permanently tied to inflation, she said, so that the Legislature won’t have to revisit the subject. The jump to $1,500 is a good start, she said.

“This is how work gets done. You find where you agree and you get it done,” King said.

Halverson put it a different way.

“We’re just trying to create fewer felons for Pete’s sake,” Halverson said. “And I think there’s a majority of us … I’m not going to say a large majority but a majority of us are beginning to realize that we’ve just been too tough on people.”  

The property offenses bill isn’t the only one on which Clem’s and Pelkey’s names both appear. They also teamed up on a bill to make it easier to expunge a juvenile offense from someone’s criminal record. House Bill 114 passed the House and arrived in the Senate on Feb. 28. It is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.

That bill drew together House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly, another socially liberal Laramie Democrat and a women’s studies professor at the University of Wyoming, and Majority Floor Leader David Miller (R-Riverton), an energy industry advocate and conservative Republican. On the Senate side, Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss was among the co-sponsors, as well as Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), a hard-right conservative known best for his support of unrestricted gun ownership. One of Bouchard’s other bills included an attempt to prevent professors from expressing their political beliefs in the classroom at the University of Wyoming, where Rothfuss teaches as a visiting professor.

The bills

House Bill 42 seeks to reduce the number of people entering Wyoming’s prisons by creating a graduated system of sanctions for those who violate parole or probation. Tailored towards those offenders whose crimes are driven by substance abuse, the bill includes measures like forced drug and alcohol treatment or a two to three day stay in a county jail — called a “quick dip” — designed to snap someone out of a destructive cycle of behavior. Wyoming Department of Corrections officials estimate the bill could save around $5 million a year by avoiding the costs of returning some offenders to prison, and instead incarcerating them for short periods in county jails and using community-based drug treatment programs. It also could save an undetermined amount of money by avoiding construction of new prison space, DOC officials say.

House Bill 55 increases the value that raises a property offense a felony from $1,000 to $1,500. Property offenses include fraud, identity theft, shoplifting, vandalism, theft and destruction of property. The felony level for “defrauding an innkeeper” is also raised. The value increase reflects inflation. The bill also raises the felony levels for arson, but by a smaller amount — from $200 to $500.

House Bill 26 allows a person convicted of a felony to petition for relief if new evidence of innocence comes to light after trial. Today in Wyoming, two years after conviction, only DNA evidence can be submitted to prove innocence. The bill, sponsored by the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee, would undo that restriction and allow non-DNA evidence to be presented at any time. Last year, the bill was considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which killed it after opposition was presented by the Attorney General’s office. After that session, Pelkey held meetings with the bill’s chief opponent from the AG’s office, John Knepper, along with prosecutors and representatives from various criminal justice groups, he told WyoFile. Together, they crafted this year’s bill, which passed the House unanimously. The Senate Judiciary unanimously passed it Friday. It will now face three votes on the Senate floor, and then requires the signature of Gov. Matt Mead.

House Bill 114 makes it easier for the state to expunge someone’s juvenile record. Today, a person must petition to have the record expunged. The bill would allow the state or a municipal government to ask courts to expunge records without the person involved filing a petition. The bill would also waive the filing fee for someone petitioning the courts to have the record expunged, removing a barrier for low-income people who committed juvenile offenses.

The bill passed the House 54-4.

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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