A bill to reform the state’s criminal justice system may never reach a vote after an 11th hour intervention by the governor’s office and an association of prosecuting attorneys.
The House Judiciary Committee cancelled a Wednesday morning hearing where it planned to take public testimony on the bill. Lawmakers decided to “lay back” the bill and cancel the hearing Tuesday night after representatives from the governor’s office and Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen voiced concerns to the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees.
“It just kind of created a mess there at the 11th hour,” committee Chairman Dan Kirkbride (R, HD-4, Chugwater) said.
Kirkbride said he does not know if he will reschedule a hearing. That will depend on what solutions are proposed, other committee members said.
“Whether it will resurface in any form in the rest of the session, I don’t know,” Kirkbride told the people who showed up for the 8 a.m committee meeting Wednesday.
“I don’t know that it’s dead,” he said. “It’s in limbo.”
The bill, HB94, was designed to divert minor offenders and parolees from Wyoming’s crowded penitentiary system, and offer early parole and release options for incarcerated non-violent offenders who show signs of rehabilitation.
Many observers were hopeful the bill would succeed in the Legislature because criminal justice reform is often a bridge between moderate Republicans, Democrats and Libertarian lawmakers. It had “broad, bipartisan support,” Rep. Nathan Winters (R, HD-28, Thermopolis), a House Judiciary Committee member said.
The bill has been through at least three committee meetings, according to Rep. Charles Pelkey, (D, HD-45, Laramie.) The committee has worked on the latest draft for at least a year and a half. Blonigen has never testified publicly, Pelkey said. Other state prosecutors had done so, according to Winters.
“It’s been a couple years worth of work,” Winters said. “We have heard from prosecutors, defense attorneys, interested parties, the [Department of Corrections], many different people have worked on this for a long time.”
Blonigen, who is a member of the Wyoming County & Prosecuting Attorneys’ Association, said prosecutors had several concerns about the bill. One was that the bill did not include sufficient funding to maintain supervision programs for those diverted from the penitentiary system. This worry was particularly pertinent given budget cuts the Department of Corrections received this biennium, he said.
“If we’re not going to do as much incarceration, we need to be sure that we’re keeping a close eye on folks,” Blonigen said in an interview Wednesday.
Blonigen also wants to ensure that those who violate parole go through the due process of a trial before being placed in jail. He said the bill left that decision open to the Department of Corrections, which would violate due process. He also worried the bill would shift costs of enforcing some provisions onto the shoulders of local government, away from the Department of Corrections.
Prosecutors are not opposed to the idea of criminal justice reform, he said, but “there were some real issues with the bill.”
The 11th hour intervention, he said, came because state prosecutors agreed on their concerns late in the process.
Representatives of the Department of Corrections met Wednesday with members of Gov. Matt Mead’s staff and some prosecutors to discuss possible amendments to the bill, Blonigen said. He referred to it as a discussion between “stakeholders.” No legislators were present.
“There’s no closed door meeting deciding what’s going to be put on the bill,” he said. The meeting was not open to the public, according to Chairman Kirkbride.
Gov. Mead, who previously served as a prosecutor and the U.S. Attorney for Wyoming, has previously said he supported the bill but would like to see some changes. He told the Joint Appropriations Committee in December that his office “looks forward to providing suggestions on how to improve it.”
Gov. Mead’s spokesman said he would comment but did not reply by press time Wednesday.
What the self-described “stakeholders” ultimately bring to lawmakers will influence whether and how the bill advances, Senate Judiciary Chairman Leland Christensen (R, SD-17, Alta) said. The prosecuting attorneys brought up concerns “that we did not have an answer for,” he said.
The lawmakers will have to decide whether the bill could continue, needs to be broken into parts, or should be killed this session, he said.
Rep. Pelkey said that for now, lawmakers are waiting to see a solution.
“I want to have some involvement in the process if we can and I want to have some input on it,” he said.