A loss of funding for substance abuse treatment programs could increase the number of felons who wind up back in prison, the director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections says.
On the cusp of an important discussion with lawmakers, Director Bob Lampert said he fears a significant increase in Wyoming’s recidivism rate, which today is among the lowest in the nation. The rate could increase as inmates leave prison without receiving treatment for the substance abuse problems that often helped land them there to begin with, he said. Lampert will travel to Thermopolis this week to report to the Joint Judiciary Committee, following another failure this past legislative session of the criminal justice reform laws he’s been pushing for years.
The in-prison drug programs, which were first enacted by the Legislature in the early 2000s, have largely been financed with money from a national settlement with big tobacco companies. That account has been significantly drawn down over the years and is now approaching the end of its life.
Last fiscal year, $4.5 million in substance abuse funding was stripped from the WDOC’s budget, according to the agency. The cut forced the WDOC to drop many substance abuse programs entirely, and significantly cut back on the number of beds available for in-prison residential treatment.
In 2011, when the recidivism rate was at 24.8 percent, research by the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts found Wyoming’s rate to be the second lowest in the nation. A year ago, the state’s recidivism rate was at 23 percent. Since the funding cuts began, that success has begun to slide. Wyoming’s recidivism rate now sits at 27 percent, Lampert said.
The WDOC releases around 600 offenders a year, Lampert said in an interview. The 4 percent increase in recidivism, he said, means that 30 to 40 people “that may have been successful if they’d received that treatment, we are seeing fail on probation and parole or get a new sentence.”
Without substance abuse programs the number could continue to climb. There are now 303 prisoners who would have been eligible for outpatient drug treatment while incarcerated but won’t receive it because the WDOC has cut all its outpatient treatment programs but one, at the minimum security Wyoming Boot Camp. The agency has also cut 96 beds from its in-prison residential treatment programs.
“I won’t be surprised if we see a 14 to 15 percent increase in our recidivism rate,” Lampert said. He made the estimate based on studies and statistics from other states.
In Wyoming’s prisons, 55 percent of men and 65 percent of women have substance abuse issues, according to a 2016 report prepared by the Legislative Service Office.
Laura Griffith runs Recover Wyoming, a non-profit housed in a downtown storefront in Cheyenne. The space is open to anyone looking for help finding housing, navigating government services, or seeking substance-abuse treatment. It’s also open for those who simply need a drug- and alcohol-free place to spend their time. Just under a third of the people who come through her door are recently released from prison, Griffith said.
“The link between mental illness, incarceration and substance abuse is like this,” she said, holding up three tightly wound fingers.
People leaving prison are walking into a world that may have changed drastically from how they remember it, she said. Recover Wyoming offers them computers and phones to help reconnect with family or seek employment. Griffith and her staff also help guide people into substance-abuse treatment, she said, including people who have just been set free.
In the last few years, she said, it’s been getting harder to get people into drug-treatment programs as state funding falls off. “There’s no space, and now there’s no state dollars,” she said.
Lamper, too, worried about Wyoming’s mental health and substance abuse treatment network. Recently released offenders face temptation, he said, and counseling options are slim.
“There’s already a high demand for substance abuse treatment at the community level, so they’re adding to the pressure on that treatment program,” he said.
Griffith said she provides those re-entering society with a safe and judgement free space while they wait to enter a treatment program and try to get back on their feet. Recover Wyoming does not offer treatment options, as the staff is not trained in counseling. However, all are in recovery from substance abuse issues themselves.
“It’s about having a community where they belong immediately,” Griffith said.
A legacy in jeopardy
A U.S. Marine Corps veteran with decades of experience in corrections, Lampert took over the Wyoming DOC in 2003. Since then, the recidivism rate dropped by 13 percent to reach its low levels of recent years. In 2013 the Association of State Correctional Administrators recognized him as the “outstanding” director in the nation for the year.
“He has worked to shift Wyoming’s focus from ‘incarceration only’ to include other proven strategies,” read a WDOC press release at the time. “He has a global understanding of the issues and a vision for the WDOC that makes a substantial and positive difference in Wyoming communities and for individuals released from prison.”
The release went on to attribute the state’s positive recidivism rate in part to Lampert’s pursuit of increased program funding for inmates. In FY 2006, 28 percent of prisoners went through drug treatment programs. By FY 2016, that number was up to 79 percent, according to the LSO’s report.
What’s putting that legacy at risk is a declining pot of money the state received as part of a $200 billion-plus settlement 46 states reached with the tobacco industry, and the Legislature’s inability to find other ways to pay for it.
Wyoming received more than $278 million from 2001 to 2016, according to data from the state treasure. At first the money was placed in a trust fund and the earnings were spent, but in 2002 the Legislature changed the statute to allow it to spend the settlement deposits themselves.
The account was overdrawn on by the Legislature for years, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Nicholas (R, HD-8, Cheyenne). Given the state’s poor revenue picture, there isn’t funding available to make up for the loss, he said.
Data from the state treasurer’s office shows the Legislature appropriated the tobacco money faster than it came in, so it never became a sustainable fund like, for example, the state’s massive Permanent Mineral Trust Fund. The Department of Corrections, Department of Health and Department of Family Services were then forced to cut their spending on the programs.
Over the last year the WDOC has seen cuts in a variety of other areas as well. The Governor cut $21 million last June, and during the 2017 session the Legislature cut an additional $2 million. The co-chairs of the appropriations committee said those newest cuts were mostly made by eliminating vacant positions.
“It’s just one of those hard things,” Nicholas said. He did not doubt the ramifications in recidivism that Lampert was concerned about, but said every agency’s budget has to be tightened.
“We have to look at the short term first and long term second,” he said, “in terms of what we can afford.”
In scarce times the Legislature has to look at priorities across the state, and drug treatment for criminal offenders might not rank that highly, he said.
“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, “rather than spending money on rehab for inmates in Rawlins.”
Nicholas’s co-chairman on the Joint Appropriations Committee, Sen. Bruce Burns (R, SD-21, Sheridan), said the tobacco settlement money might last only a few more years if the Legislature isn’t careful. He served on the Judiciary Committee for 12 years before joining Appropriations, and said he knows the value of the treatment programs.
“A good amount of credit should be given to the department for [drug treatment], and the programs it’s been running” he said. “If I had the money I’d give it to them.”
If Lampert’s fears materialize, the committee might take another look at the DOC’s budget, Burns said. “I would suspect an increase in recidivism might rearrange some priorities.”
Wyoming’s prison population is already growing, even without recidivism rates increasing. In 2014, the PEW Charitable Trusts estimated a 14 percent growth in prison population for Wyoming by 2018. Eventually, that will force the state to build more prison cells or find alternatives to incarceration.
“What I’m hoping is that we don’t have to necessarily in the long run incarcerate non-violent offenders,” Burns said. “I’m hoping we can find alternative means to [manage] them.”
Reform efforts continue to fail
During the general session, a bill attempting to reform Wyoming’s criminal justice system and keep more people from entering prison passed the House but failed when it was not introduced for discussion by Senate President Eli Bebout (R, SD-26, Riverton). The bill would have carried the type of reforms Burns said are needed to keep the state’s prison population from increasing.
“Criminal justice reform is the kind of ideas you have to look at,” Burns said.
The Judiciary Committee has been pursuing alternatives to incarceration for several years now. Lampert said he first asked the Legislature to examine criminal justice reform options 13 years ago. In the last three years he has worked with lawmakers on the Joint Judiciary Committee and a group made up of prosecutors, victims groups and others with a stake in criminal justice. “Everybody you can think of,” had a role in discussing reform, Lampert said in February.
A reform attempt failed during the 2016 budget session, and the committee took up the topic during the interim period to try to develop more comprehensive legislation.
The resulting bill would have diverted some criminal offenders to substance abuse programs instead of prison, Lampert said. Killing the bill, he said, “delayed what we thought were important alternatives that would’ve slowed the weight of growth in our prisons.”
During the session, Bebout said he decided to block the bill because of disapproval from prosecuting attorneys and a member of the parole board, plus the more-than $2 million initial appropriation and the $2.5 million annually required to implement the new programs. The parole board as a whole supported the legislation.
WDOC had estimated savings resulting from the reforms would have been around $7.6 million a year, plus $13.5 million in prison-related construction costs. That estimate was deliberately conservative, Lampert said.
The failure to pass criminal justice reform as a solution to the WDOC’s budget troubles is indicative of a larger failure by the Legislature to look at the big picture, House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Mark Baker (R, HD-48, Rock Springs) said. The Legislature is concerned about reducing the state’s expenditures, which Baker supports, but does not tend to look at how different legislation it passes affects costs, he said.
A bill like criminal justice reform should not be looked at in isolation from the state’s fiscal problems, Baker said. With state funding limited, agencies will have to be creative in how they accomplish their missions, he noted, and criminal justice reform was an example such creativity being stifled.
“The biggest thing I think the Legislature has not addressed is the intertwined nature of all these things we talk about,” he said.
Baker has advocated relaxing the state’s marijuana laws. Though he said few people are incarcerated solely for a marijuana charge in Wyoming, it’s another example of something that could ease stress on the judicial system.
One of the concerns raised by opponents of the criminal justice reform bill was that the state’s parole and probation programs are ill-equipped to handle an influx of new clients, which could have occurred had the bill become law.
WDOC disagrees, Lampert said. The Joint Judiciary Committee will meet Thursday and Friday, in Thermopolis. One of the topics on its agenda for this interim session is a review of those programs.
Lampert is hopeful that this interim the committee can craft reform legislation that sticks.
“I will continue to express concerns that our prison population is growing,” he said.