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Criminal Justice Reform Has Waited Long Enough

Criminal Justice Reform Has Waited Long Enough

It’s been a topsy-turvy ride for Wyoming’s Criminal Justice Reform bill, HB94. Too few understand the magnitude of effort it has taken to get the evidence-based legislation to where it is now. After nearly FIFTEEN years of discussions, studies, and analysis, the bill finally stands a fighting chance at becoming law.

In 2002, Wyoming’s Interim Joint Judiciary Committee discussed sentencing practices as an interim topic in light of prison overcrowding.

In 2007, The U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance teamed up with Pew Charitable Trust and several other entities to develop more efficient and effective sentencing and corrections policies. The project became known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). After Wyoming posted the eighth highest incarceration rate in the nation, the Committee again took on sentencing with hopes of improving efficiency.

In 2010, the Committee studied parole options to combat the rising prison population. The interim materials noted the opening of the prison in Torrington and expressed concern that it was “being rapidly filled due in part to the fact that Wyoming has a higher rate of incarceration than many other states.” Again, in 2013, the Committee looked into criminal justice practices to reduce costs and decrease recidivism.

In 2014, Wyoming caught wind of JRI success stories and an interim study allowed the Wyoming Department of Corrections to present information on improving and managing the criminal justice system. In 2015, the Committee used that information to build the first comprehensive criminal justice reform bill. Unfortunately, shaky understanding of potential savings presented too many uncertainties and it ultimately died.

After the bill’s lack of success in the 2016 session, the Interim Joint Judiciary Committee doubled down and with the help of community stakeholders, went back to work perfecting the bill. Three, two-day-long meetings later, the bill appeared to be in great condition and was unanimously accepted to move forward in session.

The bill began the 2017 session assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. After some fine tuning, the Committee voted 8-0 to sponsor the bill and sent it to face yet another challenging hurdle – Appropriations. The House Appropriations Committee shifted a small portion of the financial burden to the Department of Corrections and passed the bill on to the House floor.

Representatives from Wyoming’s law enforcement community, the Department of Corrections, the Parole Board, prosecutors, trial attorneys, judges, policy analysts, victims and their families, offenders and their families, the press, faith leaders, staffers from the Governor’s office, and Judiciary Committee members from both the House and Senate have ALL dedicated a tremendous amount of input and effort toward creating the bill before us now.

HB94 is without a doubt an investment, but it’s a smart investment. Thirty-three states have enacted JRI-based, criminal justice reforms over the last decade and all have found some measure of success. Overall prison rates have decreased, state crime rates have declined steadily, and participants report massive financial savings amounting to millions, and in some cases, billions of taxpayer dollars.

Criminal Justice Reform represents a long awaited first step toward a more efficient criminal justice system that values second chances over retribution. Though it still may not become law, it would not be for lack of hard work.

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Monday, 25 September 2017
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