By Bob Beck
For the last several years the Wyoming Department of Corrections has urged lawmakers to implement a number of reforms that could reduce a growing prison population. Some of those ideas involved changing sentencing guidelines and getting non-violent offenders back on the street. But a couple of years ago a massive Criminal Justice Reform measure died after the Senate President declined to hear it.
Around the same time lawmakers cut funding for drug treatment within the prison system. The thinking was that inmates could get that treatment on the outside, but the problem was that affordable state-funded treatment was also cut from publically funded mental health agencies. Cheyenne Attorney Linda Burt is the former head of the Wyoming ACLU.
“I mean it is extraordinarily important that there be long-term concerted efforts in our corrections systems to do drug and alcohol treatment. And everyone who needs that treatment should be getting that treatment that would lower our rates of recidivism.”
What happened is that many of those released violated their probation and returned to prison. It drove up the prison population and recently 88 inmates were transferred to a private prison in Mississippi in an effort to free up space.
Actually, Wyoming has traditionally has had one of the lowest recidivism rates in the nation. But according to the Director of the Wyoming Board of Parole, Ed Risha, those numbers increased when funding for treatment was cut. Most of those came from probation and parole violations.
“We saw in 2016 to 2017 the numbers of revocations went up. But a lot of that was because of people let out to get treatment as opposed to receiving treatment before they hit the streets and then they have the same influences and no treatment.”
That funding was mostly restored in this past legislative session, but there are still plenty of issues to address. Wyoming has a lack of mental health services in general, but Cheyenne Representative Jared Olsen said that’s especially true in rural areas.
“And we have to find a way to address that and I’m just not sure how we do that other then move those folks around to more populated counties and when you do that what you lose is the home-based support.”
In other words, they won’t have family or friends to help them. Olsen is a member of the legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee that is trying once again to implement reforms to address prison overcrowding, treatment, and possible sentence reform. Lawmakers have asked the Council of State Governments Justice Re-investment initiative to help. Marc Pelka represents the organization and has already taken a good look at Wyoming’s costs and he thinks treatment, especially if it can be provided early, would be a big help. He said there are a number of things to look at.
“Unaddressed drug abuse needs or challenges maintaining employment or negative peer associations, the types of characteristics that are related to recidivism. Because if Wyoming state policymakers can move resources upstream, can provide swift and proportionate responses, they can avoid the costly use of a prison bed and they can avoid recidivism.”
Steve Lindley is the Deputy Director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections. He added that not everyone needs a lengthy sentence and he’s hoping lawmakers will look at more options.
“Are there other ways that some of them can be dealt with safely that are less costly or that kind of broaden the sanctioning continuum that are available to the courts and to the board of parole.”
Others in law enforcement think the effort to get more people back on the streets could be dangerous. Matt Redle is the longtime Sheridan County Attorney and while he agrees that reforms are needed and should be considered, he worries that the motivation by the Department of Corrections to reform the system is based on trying to save money.
“And there may be a bias in favor of reducing the population that overrides the concern that may exist with respect to public safety.”
Redle added that there are people that will re-offend and they need to stay in prison. He says what’s needed is a comprehensive effort that focuses on those who will have the best success if they leave the prison system while making sure that the state also provides a pathway to success.
“It may be education for some but more often than not it’s going to be employment and the ability to get a job, take care of their families, put food on the table and do it in a way that doesn’t violate the law.”
Many admit that these reforms could be costly and Redle would like to see any savings reinvested into such treatment programs. Which might not be what some lawmakers want to do. Cheyenne Representative Jared Olsen likes the direction they are heading but admits that it might be another tough sell before the full legislature.