By Andrew Graham
Outside experts from the Council of State Governments presented lawmakers last week with targeted solutions to stem Wyoming’s ever-deepening prison crisis: Invest in substance abuse and mental health treatment for offenders and retool probation and parole programs.
Now it’s up to legislators on the Joint Judiciary Committee to move those fixes forward, a prospect that seemed far from certain at a committee meeting last week.
The analysts spent months reviewing Wyoming’s courts, jails, prisons and probation and parole programs, using a data-driven approach and their experience from other states. Their work in Wyoming, part of a broader national initiative, was requested by the Department of Corrections and endorsed by all three branches of state government.
Among the clearest results from CSG’s analysis was an opportunity to lower incarceration rates by supervising criminal offenders on probation and parole more effectively.
Last year the majority of prison admissions — 54 percent — came from offenders failing on probation and parole. The majority of those offenders failed not because they committed substantive new crimes but for violations of the conditions of their supervision — missing meetings with parole officers, falling behind on restitution fines or failing drug tests, for example.
Indeed, through drug tests or not, people often fail probation and parole because of untreated substance abuse and mental health challenges, researchers found. Those are the same untreated underlying problems that led the offenders to prison in the first place.
The good news is that taken together, those two problems — a lack of treatment options and high parole and probation failings — are addressable and offer a path forward for the state, CSG’s experts told lawmakers at a meeting of the Joint Judiciary Committee in Laramie last week. By investing in long under-resourced mental health and drug treatment centers and ensuring offenders receive care from those centers at timely moments during their reintegration to society, Wyoming can break the cycles that land many offenders back in handcuffs.
The state can also reorganize its probation and parole system to enable supervision officers to focus on their clients during the times they are most likely to fail.