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Increase Public Safety and Save Money? I'm in!

Comprehensive criminal justice reform could increase public safety, save millions of dollars, and give each non-violent offender a second chance.

Over 95% of those incarcerated in Wyoming will eventually be released from prison, so we must consider what to do with these individuals while they are in the state’s custody.  Research tell us that lengthy sentences for non-violent, low-level offenders may actually increase the threat of future offenses.  Alternatively, equipping non-violent offenders with the tools to become responsible members of the community can maximize long term public safety and minimize state spending on corrections.

Last month, representatives from the Department of Corrections and the Wyoming Board of Parole presented a draft bill to the Interim Joint Judiciary Committee that offers six such tools to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with offenders.  Each change invests in public safety and lessens the burden on taxpayers.

First, the bill allows non-violent, first time offenders the opportunity to pay their debt to society in a way that fosters individual growth.  As an alternative to incarceration, eligible offenders enter probation, where they are monitored and must adhere to several requirements.  As a one-time only deal, participants that meet expectations will have their offense stricken from permanent record.  Participants that show exceptional progress can complete probation early.  Those who violate their probation lose their chance at a clean slate and may be assigned rehabilitation, house arrest, curfews, and short term jail stays.

Second, judges and parole officers are given tools to assign intensive rehabilitation as a condition of probation or parole; replacing the old cold turkey approach with a real fighting chance.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse explainsevery dollar invested in addiction treatment programs yields a return of between $4 and $7 in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs, and theft.”

Third, the legislation allows the parole board to impose four to six month sentences for minor, technical parole violations rather than requiring offenders to serve their full remaining sentences.  This ensures tax dollars will not be used to warehouse offenders for years on end for violations as simple as missing a meeting.  When Wyoming spends around $50,000 to incarcerate just one inmate for one year, it is wise to reserve incarceration for more serious violations.

Fourth, Wyoming would expand “good time” credits as an incentive for inmates and parolees to earn reduced sentences for exceptional behavior.  Currently, the parole board may grant inmates a half-day for every day they are compliant.  Parolees may receive two-thirds of a day for each day of compliance. 

The draft bill would raise a parolee’s reward to one day-for-one day and make credits non-revocable if the parolee is not convicted of a new crime and does not abscond from the court.  When applied to inmates, the rate of good time accrual remains unchanged.  However, for those serving time for a non-violent crime and who meet a rigorous list of additional requirements, credits earned may not be taken away.  Good time promotes better behavior behind bars and makes prisons safer for corrections officers.

The fifth change would give probation and parole officers the power to sanction violators with short term jail sentences, residential programs, and substance abuse treatment if necessary.  The sixth allows inmates with longstanding good conduct to transfer to residential facilities three years prior to parole eligibility rather than two.  Shortened sentences ensure the community is not paying to incarcerate individuals who clearly demonstrate they are no longer a threat to society.    

Wyoming would not be the first state to move in this direction.  In 2014, South Dakota passed a criminal justice bill very similar to Wyoming’s current proposal.  In addition to giving offenders a much needed shot at redemption, South Dakota reports net savings around $34 million.  Wyoming would also join Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Utah, and several others that have found ways to enhance public safety while saving significant, taxpayer dollars.

It is important to remember that the primary purpose of the corrections system is to “correct” bad behavior.  These proposed reforms aim to re-focus our system on that goal.

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Monday, 11 December 2017

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