A guard tower at the Wyoming State Penitentiary outside Rawlins, where structural problems have forced the Legislature to negotiate a contract to house prisoners in a private facility in an emergency. But CoreCivic, the for-profit company that could hold Wyoming inmates, has a poor record, former Wyoming ACLU head Linda Burt says. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

For decades it was politically popular to be “tough on crime,” especially in conservative states like Wyoming.

Bills that put additional crimes on the books and enacted longer sentences for existing crimes were easy to pass and great for speeches back home.

Those laws have consequences. Wyoming’s prison system is currently at nearly maximum capacity. A recent newspaper article quoted a district attorney as saying the Department of Corrections has asked judges not to sentence offenders to the penitentiary unless absolutely necessary.

At one point in time the director of the Department of Corrections told legislators, “We’re putting people in jail that we are mad at, not people we need to be safe from.” We have incarcerated so many individuals that do not need incarceration that we are running out of space for those who do need to be locked up.

As a result of the continuing rise in the inmate population, the Department of Corrections staff told the 2015 Legislature that it would need 144 new beds to the Wyoming Medium Correction Unit in Torrington.

The additions and needed updates would cost $13.5 million, with an additional $5 million a year needed to operate the new space.

Legislators also were advised that the state would not need to spend that money if best practices reform measures were passed. Offenders could be treated in residential drug rehabilitation programs outside of the prison and more first-time nonviolent offenders could be given probation instead of incarceration.

The Joint Judiciary Committee sponsored a bill in 2016 with many of the department’s recommended reforms, however it was not approved for introduction.

In 2016 the Department of Corrections was forced to trim almost $18 million from its budget — leaving positions vacant and cutting programs including  vital substance abuse treatment. The cuts will not only compromise inmate and officer safety but will increase recidivism and reduce inmate success in dealing with issues such as substance abuse.

In addition, officials have been told the maximum security penitentiary in Rawlins, built in 2001 for a projected 50-year life span, has structural problems that are similar to those that forced closure of the previous unit. Due to the instability of the soil, walls and floors are buckling and cracking; flooding is also a constant problem due to the high water table. It is estimated that it will take  a minimum of $84 million to repair the building and at least $175 million to replace it.

The 2017 Legislature will again have the opportunity to reform the Wyoming system with a new bill that works to keep offenders out of prison for first offenses, nonviolent crimes and some violations of probation and parole. The changes would ensure access to rehabilitation and treatment programs. The bill also would allow inmates to earn more sentence-reduction opportunities for good behavior.

These changes would keep offenders in their communities with family and community support, help them stay employed and save money. The changes would also provide for safe communities.

These changes arise from best practices programs that have been proven to work in other communities. Criminal justice experts have known for decades that incarceration is one of the least effective ways to reduce crimes with the majority of offenders. Reform makes sense not only from a humanitarian stance but from a fiscal policy stance.

These changes face strong opposition. For 50 years the criminal justice community has pleaded with Wyoming lawmakers to reform our juvenile justice system. But decade after decade legislators, encouraged by prosecuting attorneys and some members of law enforcement, have refused. The children of Wyoming continue to be damaged by a system that defies reason.

These same groups will be busy this session trying to thwart sentencing  reforms. They have already started a negative campaign calling reform “a get-out-of-jail-free card”.

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Reform will indeed keep people who don’t need to be behind bars out of jail. In most cases jail is the worst solution to community safety and crime. Most offenders need treatment, education and jobs. In the majority of situations, those are the things that not only work best but are the most economical for the state to provide.

If legislators truly don’t care about doing the right thing for those people in the justice system, they should at least care about doing the fiscally responsible thing for the state.

Attorney Linda Burt is long-time advocate for improvements in the state’s justice and corrections systems. She formerly worked as executive director of the Wyoming ACLU.

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