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Cuts to prison drug treatment come back to bite budget

Cutting substance abuse treatment programs for prisoners is costing the state $4.6 million a year by driving released inmates right back behind bars, Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert told lawmakers Dec. 11.

Since funding for the programs was slashed in 2016, the correctional system has seen a 7 percent increase in those who fail the conditions of their release because of substance abuse issues, Lampert said. That equates to around 112 people who ended up back behind bars.

They cost around $113 a day per inmate, he said. Over the course of a year that adds up to $4.6 million — more than double the annual savings from the cuts. Lampert was speaking to the Joint Appropriations Committee, which ended two weeks of hearings on state agency budgets in Cheyenne on Friday.

The JAC will reconvene and begin to craft the state’s budget bill for the next two years in mid January. Lampert has asked lawmakers to provide new funding for the substance abuse programs. With just the current increase of returning inmates, the state would pay more than $9 million during the next two-year budget cycle. Lampert predicts that number will continue to rise.

Lawmakers and Gov. Matt Mead cut the programs by around $4.5 million in 2016, according to the WDOC. The cut nearly eliminated outpatient drug and alcohol counseling for inmates, and severely reduced the number of beds available for intensive inpatient treatment.

In an April interview with WyoFile, Lampert predicted the state’s recidivism rate — which at 23 percent before cuts began was one of the lowest in the nation — could increase by between 14 to 15 percent. The 7 percent rise he discussed last week is different from the recidivism rate, which is measured on a three-year basis, he said. However, it indicates an increasing recidivism rate.

Each percentage point uptick in recidivism would cost the state around $664,000 a year, Lampert told the lawmakers.

Substance abuse issues are the underlying factor behind many crimes committed in Wyoming. The vast majority of the state’s inmate population — 92 percent of women and 89 percent of men in prison — are in need of some level of drug and alcohol treatment, Lampert said.

Like other state agencies, the WDOC is squeezed by mounting fiscal pressures. In addition to the request for extra money for substance abuse, Lampert asked for $1.4 million to increase wages for correctional officers. Vacancies at the four prisons around Wyoming have grown to a dire state, he said, and the salaries are no longer competitive. Hiring is particularly hard given the remote locations — Rawlins, Lusk, Torrington — and the need to compete against a predicted boom in high-paying energy jobs in the Rawlins area.

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Lampert described his agency’s budget as “reduced to the point of total emaciation,” and said the drug counseling cuts are an example of how “the search for every efficiency and available dollar has led to the point of inefficiency.”

Lawmakers are still investigating at this point, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Bruce Burns told WyoFile. They have not come up with a dollar amount they’d like to strip out of the state’s budget, if they do intend to make reductions, he said.

Despite the cuts, “you have a Department of Corrections you can be proud of,” Lampert told the committee. “Our staff is committed to the vision and the mission of enhancing public safety … while actively giving offenders the opportunity to succeed and become law-abiding citizens.”

WDOC has been on the state budgeters’ minds frequently over the last few years. Lawmakers are grappling with whether to repair or replace an aging state penitentiary as private prison companies hover on the horizon, offering solutions that are cheaper on their face but riddled with ethical dilemmas.

The agency’s work was appreciated, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Nicholas told Lampert. In April, the Cheyenne Republican told WyoFile that in the state’s scarce fiscal times he wasn’t sure if Wyoming residents would want tax dollars directed at substance abuse for inmates.

“The average person in Wyoming would rather see roads fixed, education funded properly and monies going to local governments and things like that,” he said at the time, “rather than spending money on rehab for inmates in Rawlins.”

But on Monday, Nicholas gave a nod to the state’s desire to care for its lawbreakers. “It’s amazing in our society that we pay $287 million biennially [the agency’s full budget] to take care of folks because of our commitment to them and to our society,” he said.

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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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