While legislators concentrate on slashing education, mental health, substance abuse and state employees pay, House Bill 94 — the criminal justice reform bill — is stalled in the Senate.
This bill outlines vital changes in the criminal justice system that would bring both savings in the Department of Corrections budget and positive outcomes for offenders. Wyoming has an excellent Department of Corrections that continues to attempt to move forward with evidence-based practices that are fiscally responsible, provide for safe communities and produce responsible family and community members.
Criminal justice reform has been the norm in many states around us, as well as throughout the nation. Wyoming has been slow to follow the trend, preferring to continue adding felonies to the books and piling on longer and longer sentences.
As other states enact reform measures and remove themselves from policing personal marijuana use, Wyoming continues to drag its legislative feet. Research has made it clear that locking more and more people up for longer and longer sentences is neither the most cost effective nor safe answer for most offenders. Wyoming continues to have lower crime rates than most of the nation but higher incarceration rates.
Justice reform has bipartisan support in most states. The conservative Koch brothers have not only funded criminal justice reform but have pushed the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Federalist Society to join with the Pew Charitable Trust, the National Black Chamber of Commerce and the American Civil Liberties Union in the effort “to bring about positive change in our criminal justice system”.
In 2015, the Legislature extended deferred prosecution to first time drug use offenses and voting rights were restored to some non-violent offenders. Reform bills brought to the Legislature in 2016 were not passed; an important bill that would have allowed first time non-violent felons eligibility for parole and other needed reforms was blocked by the Senate.
Current legislation that would allow judges to use substance abuse treatment as a sentencing alternative has passed the House of Representatives. Almost 70 percent of individuals already convicted of felonies face probation revocation as a result of substance abuse. Treatment is not only a more fiscally responsible choice but a more effective alternative. Testimony in the Judiciary Committee stated that for every dollar spent on treatment, the state saves four to seven dollars. This type of reform would also ease the continuing problem of overcrowding in our state prisons and alleviate the need for the building of more facilities.
House Bill 94 would also expand the ability of judges to defer sentencing in some misdemeanor and felony cases and, upon successful completion of probation, dismiss the charges. The bill allows the judge further discretion in creative sentencing alternatives including short immediate sentencing for parole violations; an effective deterrent.
The original criminal justice reform bill was a result of interim work of the Joint Judiciary Committee and the Department of Corrections. Its goal was to “keep criminals out of prisons for many nonviolent crimes or violations of probation and parole while also make sure that [those offenders] have better access to rehabilitation” according to Sen. Leland Christensen, R-SD-17, Alta, the chairman of the committee.
In early January, Sen. Christensen said, “Not everybody needs to be locked up. There are certainly those who need to be locked up at the get-go. But this is meant to give more tools to [judges, prosecutors and agents of probation and parole].”
Criminal justice reform has been an interim study for three consecutive years yet on the eve of introduction, prosecutors and sheriffs voiced strong objections to reform and one district attorney called the bill a “get out of jail free card.”
Over the years both prosecutors and the attorney general’s office seem to prefer last minute end runs to kill legislation instead of working on bills with interim committees. A substitute bill was developed to address the prosecutor’s concerns and was passed by the House.
Unfortunately, since being received for introduction in the Senate on Feb. 8, the bill has been stalled by Senate President Eli Bebout and is in danger of not being passed. As the Senate recessed for the long Presidents Day weekend last Thursday afternoon, Christensen said he had no information indicating when or if President Bebout would assign the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Senate should pass this bill and continue Wyoming’s small steps towards long-overdue reform.