An audience made up of lawmakers, mental health experts, law enforcement officers, policy advisers and more gathered at the Red Lion Hotel in Cheyenne to explore ways to fix Wyoming’s overcrowded and increasingly underperforming justice system. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Gaps in Wyoming’s mental health and substance abuse treatment systems are contributing to the state’s prison overcrowding problem say experts who participated in a criminal justice reform forum in Cheyenne last week.

Drugs, alcohol and mental health issues are driving people to commit crimes and the tools needed to combat such underlying problems are lacking systemwide, participants said at the State Forum on Public Safety on June 11. The mental health crises that often underlie criminal acts remain untreated when offenders enter the justice system after arrest, and there isn’t sufficient treatment to help them avoid making the same mistakes once they’re released, either.

The forum convened an impressive range of Wyoming policy makers and agency heads from all aspects of the criminal justice system with the goal of easing pressure on the prison system while maintaining public safety and better rehabilitating criminal offenders. It was managed by experts from the Council of State Governments who have come to Wyoming to help policymakers craft new ways to reinvest state funds in the justice system. Lawmakers, agency heads, law enforcement officials, mental health professionals and criminal justice experts attended.

A banquet room at the Red Lion Hotel played host to officials ranging from Department of Health Director Tom Forslund to Rocks Springs Police Chief Dwane Pacheco and Laramie County’s sheriff Danny Glick, along with prosecutors, mental health experts and corrections officials from around the state. Most members of the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee attended as did Michael Davis, the incoming chief justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Wyoming is a rural state, but access to mental health and substance abuse treatment here is  equivalent to something even more sparsely populated, said Cora Chambers, the director of Wyoming’s Victim Services Unit. “We’re not just rural, we’re frontier by human services terms,” she said. Chamber’s office seeks to treat the victims of crimes to avoid escalating cycles of trauma, she said.

Law enforcement officers said treating drug and alcohol problems more thoroughly would make their jobs easier.

“If we can have control on our [drugs] and alcohol on a state level, as well as a local level we’ll see a marked reduction in crime,” said Rock Springs Police Chief Dwane Pacheco during a panel discussion. Violent crimes especially are often driven by drug and alcohol use, he said.

Other law enforcement officers on the panel said the problem could grow with current drug use trends.

“Close to 25 percent of my felonies are drug-related felonies,” said Natrona District Attorney Mike Blonigen, a longtime Casper prosecutor. Heroin and methamphetamine are driving drug arrests; there’s more of both drugs and they are showing up in more potent quality, he said. Steve Woodson, the director of the Department of Criminal Investigation, said meth and heroin quantities were on a downward trend overall.

Wyoming has the second highest drug arrest rate in the nation, according to the CSG team’s research. The rates have increased in recent years. And though Blonigen cited meth and heroin, Pacheco said the highest number of drug arrests by his officers was for marijuana.

Law enforcement officers share a table in the back of the conference hall. From left to right in the back row: Department of Criminal Investigation Director Steve Woodson, Rock Springs Chief of Police Dwane Pacheco, Laramie County Sheriff Danny Glick and Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Budget cuts initiated by the state Legislature in 2016 largely eliminated in-prison drug treatment programs. Though officials have been reluctant to link cause and effect, the year following those cuts saw a 91 percent increase in the number of people failing parole once released from prison. The Legislature restored the funds last session.

But experts pointed to a lack of community services available to help someone avoid the same temptations or behaviors that landed them in handcuffs to begin with.

Chambers asked Pacheco how often his department receives calls that are more about a mental health crisis than a crime.

“How many times do your officers respond to someone who’s in crisis when you realize it’s not so much the crime it’s the underlying mental health issue or the underlying substance abuse?” she asked. “Would you not say that’s the vast majority of crimes that you’re getting? Where you realize I don’t need to take this person to jail I need to take this person to treatment.”

“Absolutely,” Pacheco said.

Blonigen said Wyoming is ill-suited to head-off problems before they reach the stage of criminal behavior.

“Right now the system is not nimble enough to address those people on an as-needed basis,” he said, “often they are so far into crisis before we can get them anything approaching [treatment] that they are a real danger to themselves or others, and so where do they end up being? The county jail.”

The 35-year-veteran prosecutor, who recently announced his retirement at the end of the year, has raised similar concerns before. Blonigen, who used his sway to oppose justice reform efforts in the past, has said his concern about treatment availability has underpinned his previous opposition to prison alternatives.  

On Monday, the CSG consultants presented evidence supporting Blonigen’s concerns that current supervision programs — parole and probation — are increasingly unsuccessful. Without good treatment options, people are winding up back in prison, said Bree Derrick, one of CSG’s consultants.  

“This is really striking to me as an outsider,” she said. “You have more people coming into your prison system right now on revocation from supervision, failing out, than you have people being newly committed.”

Though Wyoming has historically had a low recidivism rate compared to other states, the number of people failing on probation and parole nearly doubled from 2012-2017, according to CSG. Those years roughly align with hard fiscal times for Wyoming and decreased spending by the state on public health, mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, both inside the corrections system and within communities.

“You have a lot of repeat customers in your system,” Derrick said.

One panelist, Judge John Fenn of the Fourth Judicial District court in Sheridan, said the upside of the high number of parole revocations was that they indicated Wyoming was trying to avoid incarcerating people. But continued failures of offenders on supervision left judges with no choices.

“Pretty soon you’ve run out of consequences other than prison,” Fenn said.

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With a lack of space in Wyoming’s mental health treatment centers, it appears that not everyone ordered into treatment by a judge is able to receive it. Today, someone ordered to inpatient or outpatient treatment by a judge may have to wait weeks, said Heath Steel, chief operating officer for Volunteers of America Northern Rockies, which runs substance abuse and mental health programs. The delay blocks the timely treatment that could stop an escalating problem from turning into a crime.

“That early intervention is critical to avoid a revocation and finding yourself back in jail,” Steel said. “Access to frontline treatment services is imperative or you’re going to get it on the back end,” he said. The back-end means jail or prison.

It’s a connection that policy makers often don’t draw, Steel said, leading them not to recognize the true costs of tight budgets for mental health and substance abuse programs.

“I would say to the members of the Legislature,” Steel said, addressing a group of lawmakers seated in front of him, “I’ve been in this job 17 years and I’ve not seen an increase [in the money to] manage an offender. I know times are tight in Wyoming but that’s a bang-up deal right there to be serving people in their community,” instead of prison.  

While the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is working most closely with lawmakers from the Judiciary Committee, House Labor, Health and Human Services Chairman Eric Barlow also attended the forum. He hopes to lead his committee through what could be a multi-year effort to review and reform Wyoming’s mental health and substance abuse program, he told WyoFile.

Barlow has been on the committee for six years, and chairman for two. Though the state has big challenges in mental health and substance abuse treatment, there is money going toward it, he said.

“You look at the total dollars and it’s incredible the amount of money,” he said. “Through medicaid through community mental health centers through [the state mental hospital], it’s a big-dollar amount. But we’re not clear on understanding where the best values are.”

Barlow wants to find out what services can best target and prevent people from reaching the point where their substance-abuse or mental-health programs reach a crisis point. “Let’s identify the gaps or opportunities to improve our system,” Barlow said. “Target it.” It’s a process that could take years but would supplement the Judiciary Committee and CSG’s work, he said.

The two-pronged approach was viewed positively by the CSG consultants.

“It is the combination of supervision and behavioral health treatment that’s going to get us what we’re really hoping for,” Derrick said. “Which is fewer crimes, fewer victims of crimes.”

During the day’s final panel, however, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Leland Christensen (R-Alta) said in today’s fiscal and political climate lawmakers will be reluctant to spend more money on programming anytime soon. The decline in energy revenues has made any fix — including mental health services — a difficult sell, Christensen said.

“Nobody’s expecting a pot of gold to be dumped on us every couple of years,” Christensen said. “We don’t have enough money to give everybody the services they need.”  

But corrections officials who have pushed for reforms, and the CSG consultants, are hopeful the solutions that come out of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative will be revenue-neutral. Any money spent on treatment programs and other alternatives would be balanced by the money saved on prison costs, they argue.

Wyoming Public Radio News Director Bob Beck, standing, leads a final panel at a Justice Reinvestment Forum on June 11. The panel consisted of, from left to right, Senate Judiciary Chairman Leland Christensen (R-Alta), Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert, Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police director Byron Oedekoven and Marc Pelka of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

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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6 Comments

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  1. I won’t have time to timely respond to all the feedback this may get, but will. I’m Bill Dahlin gubernatorial candidate from Sheridan, Wyoming. The Wyoming constitution refers to and charges that we rehabilitate our prisoners, not warehouse them. Our prison population is out of control. We cannot afford not to change the system. I will work on this challenge. On top of this we have the highest suicide rate of any state. Mental health should be the target of priority. I believe it is correct, that if you go after the cause the cost of the correctional facilities will go down. There may be a transitional bump in cost, but the end goal, costs will go down and we will have more productive citizens.

  2. For the most part, the forum appears to have focused on the need for increased mental health and substance abuse treatment with little attention given to the need for prevention services and activities – beginning in early childhood on up. The treatment only focus would seem to address only retrieving the horse that keeps escaping without fixing the barn door lock. The well made comment that recommends targeting and intervening at risk people is well made. I would add to that, similar to public health tocacco prevention activities, that we go beyond the individuals and look at some of the “gorillas in the room” such as promotion of alcohol at public events and refusal to consider taxes that could pay for these services.

  3. It has taken over fifty years of concerted public health effort and innumerable legal judgements against the tobacco industry to substantially curb the use of tobacco and nicotine. One drug.
    We as a culture are now confronted with a growing abundance of drug and substance abuse issues, not to mention the endless mental health problems that defy both classification and treatment.
    Though a daunting task, a good start would be to treat desperate young people with the same sense of commitment and urgency that we afford an eighty year old in need of an implantable cardiac defibrillator.

  4. We have always suffered from the lack of mental health in Wyoming. I don’t know what the answer is but there has got to be something that we can do. Our teen suicide speaks volumes for the need of mental health.WW

  5. Maybe we shouldn’t glorify alcohol? Alcohol is our number one problem in this state. If you’d back off the cannabis you’d probably have a population drop in prisons, and not so much a drop in state population. Mental health should be free for all since it most definitely benefits All in society. Knowing the people in our government, they’ll probably pay for more prison lock downs instead of help others Up. I hope we get some caring new blood in our capital this election season.

  6. Just one example of where a reliable income source would help address a critical problem. Another vote for a state income tax.