Light breaks through clouds over Wyoming’s State Penitentiary in Rawlins. (photo courtesy of the Wyoming Department of Corrections)

When the Wyoming Legislature is in session, and while renovations to the Capitol building continue, Gov. Matt Mead and some of his staff occupy a suite of rooms in the rented Jonah Building, a former Kmart. The Governor’s office is adjacent to the office of the Senate President, and both spaces are several stretches of gray hallway away from committee meeting room L54.

Various rooms of the Jonah Building have been converted to legislative committee rooms. L54 is one of the biggest, and is often used for hearing high-profile bills lawmakers anticipate will draw the largest crowds for public testimony. Bills dealing with abortion, guns and marijuana, for example, were all heard in L54 during the last session. The room isn’t always big enough.

On Tuesday, Jan. 17, at 8 a.m. L54 was scheduled to be occupied by the House Judiciary Committee. It was exactly one week into the session and there was only one item on the agenda for that morning: House Bill 94, Criminal justice reform.

The House Judiciary Committee members were relatively young — out of nine, five were in their first year on Judiciary. House Bill 94, however, was not. It was a complex piece of legislation designed to curb Wyoming’s rising prison population, and prison costs, and had been a focus of leaders at the Wyoming Department of Corrections and others for 13 years.

But agenda aside, House Bill 94 would not be heard in L54 on January 17. It’s eventual fate, bill proponents would later say, was decided the night before around a table in the governor’s office down the hall.

The bill did not die then, and in fact 21 days later it would pass out of the House on a narrow vote. However, lawmakers and bill proponents say the spreading doubt — which led a piece of legislation once touted for broad-based support to die without a vote in the desk drawer of the senate president — began with that closed door meeting that Monday evening.

The story of House Bill 94’s life and death is a story of the push and pull between different elements of the justice system. It’s a story of prosecuting attorneys and Department of Corrections officials whose goals conflict in stark ways, and of a member of the Board of Parole whose beliefs were so strong he worked against his own colleagues.

It’s also the story of how Wyoming’s citizen legislature can struggle to pass complex legislation, particularly when it comes without influential “rabbis” — as legislators sometimes call a bill’s chief proponent — but instead powerful skeptics.

A new face on an old problem

Among the lobbyists that work the temporary capitol building, Anthony Vibbard stood out last session as a new face, and a younger one.

Work brought Vibbard to Cheyenne in August 2016. Fresh out of law school, and with a deeply libertarian approach to criminal justice, he’d come to push policy for the think tank the Wyoming Liberty Group. Though maligned by critics as an anti-tax organization funded by wealthy donors, the Liberty Group sees criminal justice as an area where it can push back against state overreach and advance more libertarian ideas of crime and punishment.

Vibbard hadn’t been involved in the writing of House Bill 94, but in it he saw a chance to join a meaningful reform effort. From his position of having just entered the debate, the bill was an “incredible first step,” he said. “It was massive.” The 23-page bill used changes in probation, parole and sentencing to slow the number of people entering Wyoming’s prisons and hasten the number leaving. With a focus on providing supervision and treatment for substance abuse before incarceration, the idea behind the reform was that non-violent criminal offenders could be kept in the community with better outcomes for both them and the state.

The legislation fit with Vibbard’s new employers’ priorities as well. “Their main concern was overpopulation and overcrowding in the prison and how that was affecting taxpayers,” Vibbard said.

Even as a newcomer to the state, it was not hard for Vibbard to see why the Liberty Group might be concerned.

Cowboy hats on a coatrack outside the chamber of the Wyoming House of Representatives in the Jonah Building, temporary home to the State Legislature. Wyoming’s citizen legislature is made up of ranchers, bankers, retirees, businessmen and a few lawyers. They have limited staff and rely on the public and agency experts to guide their policy choices. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

The average prison sentence in Wyoming had gone from 60 months in 1980 up to 88.5 months in 2016, according to the WDOC. The proportion of the population incarcerated has greatly increased as well. In 1980, one out of every 878 residents was incarcerated. In 2016, it was one out of every 244.

Impacts on the WDOC’s three main prison facilities are predictable. As of July, the State Penitentiary in Rawlins was at 98 percent of its normal operating capacity. The medium security prison in Torrington was near 97 percent. The women’s prison in Lusk was full, at 104 percent of its normal operating capacity. Prisoners there have had to be moved occasionally to the Goshen and Platte County jails to make space.

Over the same four decades, the state’s crime rate was nearly halved.

The connection between higher incarceration and lower crime rates is clear — offenders can’t commit crimes (against the nonincarcerated public) from prison cells. But reform advocates believe prison sentences, in Wyoming and elsewhere, have lengthened to a point exceeding effectiveness.

Between 10 and 35 percent of a national decline in crime in the 1990s was due to increased incarceration, said Jake Horowitz, a researcher and policy adviser with the Pew Charitable Trusts. But as sentences continued to creep up, he said, states and the nation as a whole went “well past” the point of diminishing returns for the various social and fiscal costs.

And, of course, there is the question of state budgets. Reform has the potential to wring savings from an agency whose budget has increased right along with the number of people it houses. Proponents of the bill estimated it could save the state $7.6 million a year. That estimate was conservative, they said, and didn’t include the deferred costs of building new prison space.

WDOC director Bob Lampert framed the situation for lawmakers at a meeting in Rawlins this July with a stark choice: Add more alternatives to incarceration to state statute — such as probation, parole and treatment programs — or pay the increasing costs of constructing more prison space and housing more prisoners longer.

Vibbard first spoke to the Judiciary Committee in October 2016. After getting familiar with the bill, he had decided to lobby for its passage full-time. He began meeting with committee lawmakers and providing them with research supporting reform.

“I didn’t think it stood that much of a chance at first,” Vibbard said. His doubt came from the bill’s size and complexity, and the jam-packed nature of the Wyoming citizen legislature’s short session. Lawmakers face a lot of complex policy options with limited professional staff. Hence, in Wyoming, agency experts, members of the public, lobbyists and professional researchers play an outsized role in educating legislators and supporting or countering policy options with the facts. Arguably as influential are endorsements by a committee or popular lawmaker.

“A lot of times people that are bogged down aren’t willing to dissect [23] pages to determine whether or not they agree with it,” Vibbard said. “They just kind of go off whatever their colleagues say.” However, as the session neared and Vibbard realized the judiciary committee supported the bill across the board, he began to think it could become law.

Vibbard considered the Jan. 17 judiciary committee meeting a mere formality, given the support he believed he’d seen from legislators, law enforcement and state agencies like the WDOC and Board of Parole. The fight, he thought, would come later in the session, helping the bill’s rabbis explain it on the House and Senate floor. He continued thinking that right up until late on Jan. 16, he said.

In a photo posted to Facebook on December 1, 2016, Anthony Vibbard lays out the pages of House Bill 94, Criminal justice reform, on his desk at the offices of the Wyoming Liberty Group. (courtesy Anthony Vibbard)

That night Vibbard got a call from a committee member he said he’d worked closely with, but did not name to WyoFile. He described the call as a courtesy, from someone who had known that Vibbard had been working hard on the bill. The lawmaker told him the bill would not be heard the next morning, and not much else.

“I knew that something had happened behind closed doors and there was some kind of huge mood switch and somebody was trying to kill it,” he said. “The guy was trying to let me down easy so I didn’t just get heartbroken right there in front of everybody.”

Vibbard had reason to be surprised at this turn of events, given the bill’s long runup to the 2017 session.

WDOC director Lampert first asked the Legislature to consider reforms 13 years ago, he told WyoFile. The first comprehensive look at reform by a judiciary committee occurred in 2007, when lawmakers conducted a review of sentencing policies. No legislation was written then, however.

“In general,” Lampert wrote to WyoFile, “the number of alternatives to incarceration have not increased over the past 13 years.” However, he said, funding for existing programs did increase, at least until an energy revenue downturn forced budget cuts.

From 2013 to 2015, the judiciary committee started looking more intensely at interim topics like sentencing, “overcriminalization,” and parole and probation programs. In 2014, Horowitz traveled to Wyoming twice to testify on behalf of PEW, once in Laramie and once in Rawlins.

The first comprehensive criminal justice reform bill was brought by the committee during the 2016 budget session. (In even-numbered years, legislative session are usually 20 working days long, during which the primary focus for lawmakers is passing the state’s budget. In odd-numbered years sessions run 40 working days and cover broader topics). The bill was introduced on the Senate side, where it passed through the Judiciary and Appropriations Committees and then died.

During the following interim, the committee returned to reform efforts. Lawmakers and WDOC tried to write a more comprehensive bill to avoid a repeat of 2016. Proponents sought input from “everybody you can think of,” with a stake in criminal justice, including prosecutors, victims groups and defense attorneys, Lampert told WyoFile in February.

Critics emerge

On Jan. 2, eight days before the session began, the Casper Star-Tribune published an article featuring several skeptics of the legislation. One of them was Gov. Matt Mead, a former federal prosecutor. He had a few concerns, he told the newspaper, but he believed the bill could pass with minor changes.

The other, fiercer critic of the bill was Mike Blonigen, the 14-year Natrona County District Attorney and a prosecutor with more than 30 years of experience.

Blonigen told the newspaper the bill was driven by “bureaucratic desire, not community need.” He also contested the idea prisons were nearing capacity, despite statistics to the contrary from WDOC.

In a recent interview with WyoFile, Blonigen said he thinks the Legislature is hopelessly underfunding the criminal justice system and the community services that helped keep people out of jail. It was one of the main reasons for his opposition to the bill. Wyoming can’t reduce incarceration and cut those services at the same time, he said.

Try to do so, and Blonigen thinks the results would be more repeat offenders, more parole violations, less accountability to the public. Today, the state’s budget cuts have already led to criminal offenders leaving prison without the supervision or counseling they need to avoid reoffending, a phenomenon Blonigen calls “the revolving door.”

WDOC officials agree with Blonigen about the link between budget cuts and increased reoffending. In April, Lampert warned that budget cuts to substance abuse programs within Wyoming’s prisons would drive the state’s recidivism rate up, perhaps drastically. By July it had increased by 4 percent.

Wyoming Department of Corrections director Bob Lampert (center) sits to the left of deputy director Steve Lindly at a July meeting of the Joint Appropriations Committee in Rawlins. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

House Bill 94 initially included a $2.8 million appropriation from the state’s general fund. Of that money, $1.78 million was to pay for substance abuse treatment as a condition for probation or a suspended sentence. Around another $600,000 was to pay for administrative sanctions and substance abuse treatment for parole or probation violations. Blonigen didn’t think it was nearly enough.

Without more funding, Blonigen said, “all we’re doing is increasing the speed of the door.” The WDOC has said those concerns were unfounded and the appropriation would have been sufficient.  

Sharp public rebukes, like those in the Casper Star-Tribune article, aren’t out of character for the Casper prosecutor. In April, well after the session’s end, he spoke at Casper’s City Hall at a ceremony to honor law enforcement and volunteers helping crime victims. “We spend too much time reading fine proclamations and making public statements and doing nothing,” he told the audience, according to a report from K2 Radio. “Nowhere is that more true than in this building and our Legislature.”

If Blonigen had shown up to lobby against the bill in committee, he doubtlessly would’ve made a formidable opponent.

Lawmakers have said the Casper Star-Tribune article was the first they had heard of his concerns. By then, the first draft of the bill was already written, but there was still plenty of opportunity for Blonigen to testify publicly. Bills are frequently amended in committee rooms at the session’s start, before going to the House and Senate floor. As the eventual agenda noted, the Judiciary Committee had devoted an entire day to the bill, despite a list of high-profile legislation awaiting its attention.

Blonigen did not attend a committee meeting during the session, nor had he during the preceding interim that anyone could remember. He told WyoFile he was never invited.

“[Prosecutors] were locked out until we decided to show up,” he said. In fact, Blonigen said he was aware of reform efforts but not familiar with the actual bill until he received a call from the Casper Star-Tribune reporter asking him to comment on it.

The WDOC disputes the characterization of prosecutors being “locked out.” Blonigen was involved in efforts at criminal justice reform in 2014 through August of 2015, said WDOC deputy director Steve Lindly. Blonigen also mentioned this in his interview, but says after that year communication from the committee or the WDOC stopped. In 2016, Lindly presented the reform proposal at an annual meeting of the Wyoming County & Prosecuting Attorneys’ Association, he said. Blonigen is a member of the association. Bryan Skoric, a prosecutor from Cody and chairman of the association in 2015, participated in the interim hearings leading up to the 2016 attempt at passing legislation.

Not all discussion of a bill happens in the public forum of committee meetings. However, a review of meeting minutes from the 2016 interim period show that parole board officials, law enforcement groups, drug treatment experts, judges, a group of family and friends of Wyoming offenders, and even a convict inside the Torrington prison shared their views with the parole board. The minutes also show at least one prosecutor, Jeremiah Sandburg of Cheyenne, spoke with the committee that interim. Blonigen described Sandburg as “new” — 2015 was his first year as the Laramie County prosecutor.

Blonigen spent much of 2015 wrestling with illness and recovering from a eventual heart transplant. Bill proponents may not have reached out to him because they knew he was going through medical troubles, he said, and so he missed out on some of the bill’s growing momentum. But he doesn’t think that’s all.

“Part of the reason they didn’t reach out to me is they were afraid I’d throw a grenade in their camp,” he said.

Blonigen told WyoFile he did intend to show up for the Judiciary Committee meeting on Jan. 17. Before that happened, however, the governor gave him a better opportunity.

“Was this a more effective way of going forward?” Blonigen said of the meeting in the governor’s office. “Yeah.”

The meeting

Daniel Fetsco, then the director of the Wyoming Board of Parole, said he was contacted on Jan. 16 by Richard Barrett, the governor’s special consul. There would be a meeting that evening at the governor’s Jonah Building office, Barrett told him, and Fetsco might be interested in coming on behalf of the parole board. Fetsco had been a proponent of criminal justice reform from the beginning, and helped shepherd the bill through the interim period. His views on reform echo those of Vibbard.

Over the preceding weekend, members of the governor’s staff had pulled together the last-minute meeting at Mead’s request. Mead wanted the two chairmen of the Joint Judiciary Committee, Sen. Leland Christensen (R, SD-17, Alta) and Rep. Dan Kirkbride (R, HD-4, Chugwater), to sit down with prosecutors who had raised concerns. The governor’s staff selected who to invite, and there was no public notice of the meeting.

Concerns from Blonigen, along with Sheridan County DA Matt Redle, drove Mead to call the meeting, the governor’s staff members said in interviews. Blonigen said the governor’s staff reached out to him first, a recollection Mead’s chief of staff Kari Jo Gray agreed with.

Mead tries to avoid wading in on legislation early in the process, his staff members say, preferring to let bills develop naturally as various stakeholders argue over the details.

But Mead had certainly been watching the criminal justice reform legislation well before he spoke with the Casper Star-Tribune. Emails from his office, obtained by WyoFile, show Mead met with the committee chairmen in November, and later that month asked staff to seek outside opinions on the bill. “The bill was so complicated that you would worry that there might be those kinds of competing principles in it,” Gray said.

At least one respondent to staff inquiries, director of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation Steve Woodson, blasted the legislation as soft on crime.

“Crime rates are increasing around the country,” Woodson wrote. “I would submit that well intentioned ideals, some of which are contained in this legislation have contributed to this increase.” Most policy institutes that study crime, however, note that crime rates have decreased, nationally as well as in Wyoming.

The governor in January decided that the prosecutors had sufficiently valid concerns to warrant his office stepping in. “It was a committee bill,” Gray said, “you know a bill that would have a more likely chance than an [individual’s] bill to pass.” Governor’s staff described the ensuing meeting as an attempt by the governor to ensure the legislation would include input from the concerned prosecutors.

“That’s a Matt-Mead approach regardless of the issue,” his policy director Mary Kay Hill said. “He has a strong sense of fair play … and so he wanted to be sure that everyone had an opportunity to connect, and that was my instruction … to set up that opportunity.”

Gov. Matt Mead signs a bill into law at the end of the 2017 general session of the Wyoming Legislature. Mead prefers not to weigh in on legislation too early, his staff says, in order to let the relevant stakeholders hash out compromises. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Months after the session, it’s difficult to know all the attendees, as no log was taken and memories are now hazy. Most invitations were made by phone, not email, and so they did not show up in the email records request from WyoFile, Barrett said. Mead did not attend the meeting, but Barrett and Gary Hartman, a former district judge and another of Mead’s policy advisers, did. Fetsco recalls Blonigen as being the only prosecutor in the room. There may have been one other prosecutor present, Barrett said, but Redle was not there.

Along with Fetsco, Lampert and Lindly from WDOC were there. Christensen and Kirkbride were the only legislators. There may have been other people WyoFile was unable to identify in the room as well. The meeting was tense, Fetsco said, particularly between himself and Blonigen.

“I was on one side with Lindly and Lampert and Blonigen was on the other side,” of the table, Fetsco said.

The committee chairmen, particularly Christensen, mirrored some of the dismay that would later be voiced by House Judiciary Committee members, Fetsco said; “Like this is the first I’ve heard of this, where have you been?”

Gray, Mead’s chief of staff, also said she remembered bill proponents being “taken aback” and frustrated.

“They felt that because [the prosecutors’ association chair] Bryan Skoric was at these [interim] meetings that the prosecutors were represented,” she said. But “Mike Blonigen — who’s pretty much a thought-leader I think because of his experiences and such with prosecutors — had been sick.”

She remembered Blonigen apologizing for coming in to the discussion late, but also that he told the other stakeholders he had nearly irreversible concerns with the legislation.

“I think my exact words were this just wasn’t ready for prime time,” Blonigen said. “You haven’t taken into account any of these service issues. You’re cutting stuff.”

Blonigen voiced criticisms of the Department of Corrections’ accountability, which echoed those he has made since, Fetsco said.

The gathering wasn’t designed to stop the bill’s progress, but it did give Blonigen unfettered access to the judiciary committee chairmen.

Rep. Daniel Kirkbride (R, HD-4, Chugwater), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee

The meeting ended. Blonigen said he left believing the bill would still be heard in committee the next morning. He spent the night in Cheyenne anticipating that, but later received a call that the chairmen had decided the bill would be held back.  

Rather than come before the committee in public, Blonigen, Lampert, Lindly and Fetsco met in a basement meeting room at the Idleman Mansion across from the Capitol building — home to the governor’s other temporary office and formerly used as a mortuary. Redle also joined, Fetsco said. Later that week, Lindly, Fetsco and Hartman traveled to Blonigen’s office in Casper for further discussion. Over the course of the meetings, a new bill was drafted to meet the prosecutor’s concerns. The governor’s office was involved in all the meetings strictly as facilitators, staff said.

On Jan. 17, Vibbard and other, less-informed members of the public showed up to L54 at 8 a.m. as scheduled. They were met not by the full committee behind its dias but instead by Kirkbride alone, who waited among the public chairs of the spacious meeting room. He explained the bill had been “laid back” after last minute stakeholder concerns, and he did not know if it would be reintroduced.

“I don’t know that it’s dead,” he said. “It’s in limbo.”  

“Are the agency stakeholders interested in the public’s opinion on how the bill shakes out,” Vibbard asked, “or are they just gonna make their own thing and bring it back?”

“You know,” Kirkbride answered, “I guess I can’t speak to that.”

Some members of the House were frustrated that day. As Rep. Nate Winters, (R, HD-28, Thermopolis), spoke about the overnight change to a reporter in the hallway outside the House Chamber,  the body’s top Democrat, Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly (D, HD-13, Laramie), overheard the discussion. “Oh! I am so annoyed,” she said. Connolly served on the Judiciary Committee from 2013-2014, and had worked on reform in the past. Prosecutors “had always been kind of lukewarm and just sitting back watching it,” she said.

Winters at the time didn’t know what the prosecutors’ objections were. “With all of the work and discussion I would be very interested to find out what the particulars are,” he said.  

New bill

As the legislative session picked up steam and lawmakers dug into dozens of bills each day, the WDOC chiefs, Fetsco, Blonigen and Redle reworked the bill.

Emails between Tamara Rivale, the Legislative Service Office attorney assigned to the Judiciary Committee, and the governor’s office show Rivale writing a proposed amendment based on the group’s suggestions. Her draft amendment, along with a copy of the original bill marked-up with a pen, was sent to the group for review on Jan. 25.

The amendments made it harder for the court to change or remove conditions of probation, and easier to revoke probation and parole. It also added requirements for prosecutorial consent for some of the incarceration alternatives. Other options for parole violators were removed as well.

The amendment also required prosecutorial consent for early termination of parole after an offender successfully completed his or her first year.

Some of the original language violated an offender’s right to due process, Blonigen said. The original bill would’ve placed in statute options of a prison stay of up to six months, or confinement to a residential drug treatment center, without involving a judge. It “seemed to want to make sentencing a bureaucratic act” for the Department of Corrections, he said.

Blonigen also worried about being accountable to the public, he said. He feared a system in which victims wouldn’t receive the justice a judge had given them.

Vibbard, the Wyoming Liberty Group lobbyist, was again tipped before the general public. Someone forwarded him the copy of the original bill with the penned-in edits. He believed the sender wanted him to review the changes and find any severe deviations from the legislation’s original purpose.

“They strategically changed language that would put more power in the hands of the prosecutors,” Vibbard said. “Like how do we give more deference to the prosecutors and the judge and less deference to everybody else.”

Other bill proponents were less bothered by the changes. The prosecutors’ concerns about due process were valid and kept the bill constitutional, Fetsco said. The legislation remained valuable with Blonigen and Redle’s inputs, though the bill’s support among lawmakers was hurt by the interference, he said.

To Vibbard, the fact that the changes had been made behind closed doors were particularly vexing. “It all felt a little grimy and it felt like there was some thought behind where the power lies,” he said.

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According to one national reform advocate, prosecutors in Wyoming played right into a nation-wide narrative of push and pull over criminal justice reform. “It’s classic,” said Kevin Ring, the president of a Washington D.C.-based group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

It’s typical for prosecutors to oppose reform efforts, Ring said, “and also that they have disproportionate influence over the process.”

Prosecutors believe they work in the public interest, he said. They worry about a penal system that is dishonest with crime victims by putting offenders back on the street early. And they argue against reform efforts with the narratives of crimes perpetrated by offenders they put away but who were then released too early.

“They’re good at scaring elected officials away from doing anything,” he said, and use arguments best characterized as “our streets are going to be running with blood if you pass this reform.”

Blonigen disagrees with the idea that he had any disproportionate influence over the process. “I don’t have a vote in that body, I just had a couple of meetings man,” he said. “The idea that somehow the prosecutors were driving the bus on this thing was kind of ridiculous.”

“What usually happens is exactly what happened,” when someone is left out of the process, Blonigen said. “They start speaking up at the last minute, the problems can’t be addresesed, and particularly with a short legislative session like we have…”

Fight like crazy

On Jan. 26, with five working days left before a bill must be voted out of committee to survive, HB-94 arrived before House Judiciary.

Though upset at the changes, Vibbard showed up ready to continue his endorsement of the bill. “I wanted to go on the record and explain that it was still good,” he said. “The bill itself still stood a purpose and it was still needed in Wyoming, at least as a small first step.”

At the meeting Lampert walked the committee through the amendments. His tone was somber, and there were few questions from the lawmakers. Neither Blonigen nor Redle was present.

“I’m a little taken aback by the size of the changes that we’ve had,” Rep. Charles Pelkey (D, HD-45, Laramie) said when Lampert finished. But with the bill back in its chamber, the committee was now free to strike back. In a testament to the reform efforts’ bipartisan appeal, Pelkey, a defense attorney and liberal legislator, aligned with Baptist pastor Rep. Nate Winters (R, HD-28, Mountain View) and Rep. Jared Olsen (R, HD-11, Cheyenne), both of whom are social conservatives, to lead a push back.

Winters asked Lampert about the change to the bill that required prosecutor consent for early discharge. Winters called it “veto” power. “Would this potentially be the most substantive change in the bill in your opinion?” he asked.

Agency heads are not allowed to make direct policy recommendations, and Lampert answered with a cautious yes.

During public testimony, Olsen asked similar questions of Vibbard when he stood up to speak. “They were grilling everybody,” Vibbard recollected. “I think the guys that I had established some rapport with … were like ‘Dude what happened? I don’t have time to sit down and stare at this for ten hours, but what happened?’”

Perhaps sensing the direction the committee was about to take, the Chief Deputy Attorney General, John Knepper, followed Vibbard to the microphone. He asked the committee to think about the value of “cooperation” as they moved forward, calling the bill a compromise born of tension between prosecutors and corrections agencies.

“I would just encourage you to think of it as that type of compromise,” he said, asking lawmakers to move the bill forward with prosecutors’ input and build trust between them and the Department of Corrections.

Rep. Charles Pelkey (D, HD-45, Laramie), is a defense attorney and a member of the House Judiciary Committee. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Pelkey expressed some skepticism. “You talked about trust on this one, I’m a little bit concerned having been a member of the committee that’s worked on this as an interim topic for two years … I’m curious how or why that level of trust is gonna be able to be reestablished.”

Knepper again urged trust. “Disagreements like this don’t get solved with upfront meetings,” he said, “they get solved with people of good faith seeing what one another do.” For reform to move forward, he said, the prosecutors would have to be kept at the table and incremental compromises would have to be made.

For the most part, Knepper’s plea fell on deaf ears. The committee voted to create  a new substitute bill with the prosecutors’ amendments. Then, Pelkey and Olsen amended the substitute to remove those changes they felt gave the prosecutors too much power. The committee kept some of the changes intact — like the one dealing with due process concerns.

But they also didn’t waste a chance to criticize the process. Pelkey called the last minute changes “offensive.” Winters agreed.

Olsen, a freshman lawmaker, saw criminal justice reform as a core tenet of his campaign and had requested to be on the judiciary committee, he told WyoFile in a recent interview.

Reflecting on the session, he said he was glad the prosecutors’ concerns had affected the bill to make it a compromise. But at the time he was disappointed.  “It was my first session so I really didn’t know what’s normal,” he said of the process. “I was frustrated because I just wanted to run, run, run, and move forward.”

In the meeting, Olsen echoed Pelkey and Winters, and asked for more transparency. “I would just ask that in the future that the stakeholders bring their concerns thoughts and changes to the committee in an open public forum and present them,” he said to a room devoid of Blonigen, Redle or the governor. “And if they’re good changes and they make good law then they’ll make it through.”

Whatever his concerns about the process, Olsen pledged to support the bill. “I’m going to fight like crazy to make sure it gets through the House,” he told his colleagues. “We can’t afford another decade of studying this issue.”

The vote to move the new bill out of committee was unanimous.

It now had eight working days to pass through the Appropriations Committee and then the House. With more reform opponents preparing to come out of the woodwork as debate moved onto the House floor, Olsen would indeed have to fight like crazy.


Continue the saga in part two, as maneuvering against the bill continues in and outside of the halls of the Legislature. -Ed.


This story was amended to include a clarification on crime statistics provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The original version described a crime decline as happening since the 1980s, the text has been changed to reflect that the decline occurred during the 1990s. -Ed., Sept. 27, 2017

Members of the House Judiciary Committee meeting in one of the Jonah building’s smaller committee rooms. Clockwise around the table from the top left they are: Rep. Bo Biteman, Rep. Mark Jennings, Chairman Dan Kirkbride, Rep. Nate Winters, Rep. Jared Olsen, Rep. Tim Salazar. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

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

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  1. Excellent article Andrew!, I, for one, was shocked that the original bill did not make it to the committee or the floor of the house. I was also left out of the late evening meeting. As the former House Chairman whom had worked the bill and had heard over 10 hours of testimony, I may have had some interesting comments. It was interesting to have conservative republicans working with liberal democrats on this bill, but both sides felt it was for the public good!

  2. Mr, Graham, my thanks to you for your hard work and diligence. I can only hope that this piece of journalism is shared far and wide, picked up by the Star and as many local papers as possible and that Wyoming citizens reach out to both their legislators and their county prosecutors to share their opinions. My own will be how sick and tired I am of hearing about public process being manipulated by a handful of men in a closed door meeting.

  3. I’ve always said that Nathan and I make a lovely couple. 🙂

    Seriously, this is one of those issues that transcends political affiliation. We need to work together to address the disturbing propensity to rely on prison time when there are better options. I am proud to work with my Republican colleagues in that effort.

  4. But why would any human work against the freedom of fellow citizens? That is the question. I believe the fear of “criminals” is contrived. There are real bad people – selfish and greedy. Why not focus on detecting those? The prison system uses the under educated “made a mistake or wrong decision” sort for the source of their power at times. It is truly tragic that even in those states of “common sense”, ridiculous bureaucratic maneuvering is alive and well. Reading this account does not make me feel our justice system is in good hands. Not at all.

    I think it is the contracts for prison and law enforcement that are at risk – money.

  5. The reporting here of this critical issue is nothing short of Pulitzer material. Criminal Justice Reform is an oxymoron in Wyoming, and the oxymorons are in charge of the asylum in Cheyenne. How else do we explain the fact that the Wyoming crime rate is half what it was a few years ago, but prison occupany is redlining. The facilities are straining. The employee entrance is a revolving door. Is too much justice actually being served by plea bargaining ? After the revenue and education demands , this is the most serious issue facing Wyoming. It’s also one of those scenarios where classic Cowboy Conservatism fails to manage the outcome in Wyoming, left to its own tact.

    Everything about this sordid justice system mess in Wyoming is an indictment of the Legislature’s penchant to outmaneuver itself for highly questionable motivations. Yet the only means of correcting the problems is by legislation and appropriation… Catch 22.

    One important statistic not ( yet ) presented here is the cost of incarceration , starting with the elephant farm that is the State Prison all the say back to the 23 county detention centers. What does it cost to keep a prisoner behind bars in Wyoming for a year ?

    Tuition at Harvard is presently $ 44,500 per school year. I would bet the ranch that it costs w-a-a-a-a-y more than that to house a miscreant in Rawlins. What does that say and where does it enter the debate ?


      I agree entirely that the article is Pulitzer material. Before I saw Mr. Vanderhoff’s comment, I emailed Andrew Graham:

      “Terrific article. At least in my opinion, a great example of in-depth journalism at its best. I think it would be great as a case study in the curriculum of a course in civics or political science or journalism or debate at the high school or college level in Wyoming. Congratulations.”