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Committee advances criminal justice reform bill

The Joint Judiciary Committee advanced a bill to keep probationers and parolees out of prison for minor violations in an effort to stem the rising number of inmates in Wyoming.

Following the death of a comprehensive criminal justice reform package during the last legislative session, the committee is trying a simpler bill to accomplish some of the same goals. Last week, they voted to sponsor a bill that would create a system of rewards and sanctions for parole and probation violators — new alternatives to revocation and reimprisonment, said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Kirkbride (R, Chugwater). Sanctions could include short jail stays designed to jar the offenders into rethinking their behavior, and mandatory substance abuse treatment if it’s clear drug or alcohol abuse drives the criminal behavior.

“Maybe that whole issue of criminal justice reform can be tackled in increments,” Kirkbride said.

The committee also killed a bill that would have eliminated a tool the parole board uses to reward inmates for exemplary behavior. Today, inmates have two ways they can shorten their sentences with good behavior while incarcerated.

“Inmate good time” is awarded by the governor, based on advice from the parole board and the Wyoming Department of Corrections if a prisoner has followed the rules. “Special good time” can come on top of inmate good time, and is awarded solely by the parole board. It requires exemplary conduct by an inmate and is used to reward pursuit of educational opportunities and self-improvement programs within the prison system.

The bill to eliminate special good time was drafted following the testimony of Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen last May. The long-serving prosecutor suggested special good time was a “secret system” used to shorten sentences and get inmates off the WDOC’s hands. WDOC leadership and the parole board disputed that claim.

The committee was united in the vote against the bill but Kirkbride did not remember the exact vote. “It went down fairly easily,” he said.

Blonigen opposed the comprehensive criminal justice reform bill last session and later helped rewrite it after an intervention from Gov. Matt Mead. He did not appear at the meeting last week, Kirkbride said.

In October, WyoFile published a two part series on the downfall of last session’s popular criminal justice reform bill. You can start that series here. For more analysis on where criminal justice reform in Wyoming could go next, click here.

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Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at [email protected], follow him @AndrewGraham88

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