Wyoming Legislature tackles penal system reform but will it be enough?

WYOMING –  The Wyoming Legislature passed a slate of bills aimed at tackling criminal justice reinvestment in Wyoming. Based on recommendations from the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, formed after a nearly yearlong study, the bills offer science-based solutions to the pressures on the state’s prison system.

“The fact is, if we do nothing, Wyoming will need an additional 200 beds in our state facilities by 2023, resulting in an additional $51 million in construction and operating costs for the Department of Corrections,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Dan Kirkbride. “We owe it to the people of Wyoming to get this right. We must address the growing pressure on our prison system while making sure the victims and their families get the justice they deserve.”

And there is evidence that overcrowding in state lockups is already having serious ramifications. Wyoming Public Radio reports two apparent Wyoming inmate suicides in 2019 raises questions about staffing and bed shortages. A total of six Wyoming inmates have died by suicide since 2014.

And a story out of WyoFile this week reports three inmates at Wyoming’s only women’s prison have asked the federal district court to force the state to deal with overcrowding and deteriorating facilities that they allege have created unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

Two recent inmate suicides and a complaint filed by three female inmates at the Wyoming Women’s Center alleging unconstitutional conditions may be indications Wyoming’s prison system is beyond capacity. (Hedi Benyounes)

All four bills came out of recommendations from the 2018 Joint Interim Judiciary Committee based on a report generated by the CSG in conjunction with the Wyoming Department of Corrections and the Wyoming Board of Parole. The CSG has been on the ground in Wyoming since May of 2018 and has analyzed approximately 1.2 million Wyoming records. The four bills include:

  • House Bill 45 –Crime victim compensation eligibility clarification extends the deadline for victims of crime to be compensated for mental health counseling and care to 36 months after the crime. Governor Gordon signed the bill into law on February 14, 2019.
  • House Bill 53 –Probation and parole-incentives and sanctions aims to keep people from re-entering the prison system by allowing judges and supervision officers to prescribe lesser punishments such as shorter stays in a county jail or community corrections programs. HB 53 has passed both chambers and awaits Governor Gordon’s signature.
  • Senate File 10 –Modification of probation allows judges to prescribe supervised or unsupervised probation for all crimes not eligible for life without parole or death penalty. It also allows for the reduction in probation time based on several factors including, among others, stable employment, community and family support and successful completion of alcohol or substance abuse programming. Governor Gordon signed the bill into law on February 15, 2019.
  • Senate File 38 –Limitation of length of probation sets the maximum sentence of probation at 36 months based on data-driven evidence that the majority of probation violations occur in the first 36 months of probation. The Joint Conference Committee Report on SF 38 was adopted by both Chamber and now awaits the Governor’s signature.

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