Legislation creating alternatives to prison for parole and probation violators, sought for years by Wyoming Department of Corrections officials, is now law.
On March 14, Gov. Matt Mead signed HB-42, creating a graduated system of penalties for parole and probation violators. The bill is a pared-down version of a measure that fell short last year, and the result of years of interim work by lawmakers and others seeking to reform the state’s criminal justice system.
Other criminal justice reform bills this session had mixed success, with some running into hurdles in the Senate.
Last year, a substantial comprehensive criminal justice reform bill failed. After narrowly passing 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.
This year’s successful bill tailors to offenders driven by substance abuse by pairing treatment options with incarceration as opposed to simply returning parole and probation violators to prison.
Approximately 45 percent to 47 percent of inmates entering the Wyoming prison system each year do so because of a violation, not first-time criminal charges, said DOC Deputy Director Steve Lindley. The new laws went into effect immediately, enabling the DOC to start implementing the programs right away, Lindley said.
The changes come at a timely moment. By the end of February, a lack of beds meant around 78 state inmates bound for prisons were instead being housed in county jails throughout the state, according to a report from the Casper Star-Tribune.
The WDOC can now conduct drug and alcohol treatment during a months-long stay in a county jail or use a two to three day stay in a county jail — called a “quick dip” — to snap someone out of a destructive behavior cycle.
Wyoming Department of Corrections officials estimate the new law could save around $5 million a year by avoiding the costs of returning some offenders to prison. It also could save an undetermined amount of money by avoiding construction of new prison space, DOC officials say.
For example, a 90-day jail based drug treatment option is now funded for 80 people a year, Lindley said. Some of those people will still likely fail probation and parole following the treatment, he said, but the DOC is hopeful that at least sixty of them will succeed and be diverted from prison.
Other programs, like the quick dip, could account for more successful diversions, Lindley said. Officials are hopeful the numbers will soon begin to add up.
“In Wyoming’s system, 80 to 100 people could certainly impact the prison bed situation,” Lindley said.
Though lawmakers funded the programs, they only did so for one year. The legislation includes a directive to WDOC to report back to lawmakers on the new programs’ success at the end of the year.
“There’s a fairly short time frame for us to get it up and running and get a little bit of time passed to see initially how people are doing,” Lindley said. While comprehensive results will be hard to come by within a year, the deputy director is hopeful they’ll be able to assess the functionality, if not the effectiveness, of the new processes.
Lindley said the department will continue to seek more alternatives to incarceration in the coming period between legislative sessions.
Other reform bills see mixed success
Lawmakers and Gov. Matt Mead also passed legislation allowing people convicted of felonies to petition for relief if new evidence of their innocence comes to light. But two more bills touted by bipartisan reform advocates in the House did not survive the Senate
The Senate Judiciary Committee killed a bill making it easier for the state to expunge juvenile records and declined to take-up a bill to lessen the penalties for property crimes.
In doing so, senators continued to thwart a bipartisan group of House lawmakers who seek to reform Wyoming’s strained criminal justice system. Democratic House members have teamed up with a bloc of libertarian-leaning Republicans over the last two sessions to try and divert people away from the prison system by offering new treatment options, and easing criminal penalties in Wyoming statute.
Some of those efforts have passed the House with good margins — this year’s expungement of juvenile records bill, for example, passed 54-4, — only to die in the Senate.
Last year, the bill to allow convicted felons to petition for relief followed that route. It passed the House but was killed by the Senate Judiciary Committee following criticism from the Wyoming Attorney General’s office.
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This year, however, a revised version of the bill passed the Legislature with only two votes against it in each chamber. Sponsored by the Joint Judiciary Committee, the bill was shepherded by Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie). Pelkey’s efforts to bring former opponents from the AG’s office, prosecutors and other interested parties together in between the sessions allowed for the bill’s success, he said in late February.
The legislation allows a person convicted of a felony to petition for relief with new evidence discovered after a trial. Today in Wyoming, two years after conviction, only DNA evidence can be submitted to prove innocence. The Legislature has now undone that restriction and non-DNA evidence can be presented at any time.
A small but important step. Sentencing reform is critical to freeing money for education and to decreasing the damage to families form draconian sentencing.