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The Bathtub That Is Wyoming’s Prison System

One of the truisms of our political system is that Interim Committee members change. After two years of very hard work by the previous Judicial Interim Committee, a comprehensive Criminal Justice Reform (CJR) Bill was not introduced in the Senate after passing through the House last session.

Problems that this Bill sought to reduce or mitigate are still with us. At this June’s Judicial Interim Committee meeting, Committee Members were presented with the latest data from the Wyoming Department of Corrections (DOC). According to census data quoted by the DOC, Wyoming’s population from 1980 to 2016 has grown from 468,954 to 585,501. The number of prisoners in our State prison however (note this is State prison and does not include municipal or county jails) has more than quadrupled, from 534 in 1980 to 2400 in 2016. If you are curious, Wyoming’s violent crime rate is one of the nation’s lowest.

What this means to our communities is this: in 1980 one in 878 Wyomingites was in State Prison and in 2016 we now have one in 244 Wyomingites in State Prison. At the same time we have experienced this growth in incarceration our annual number of crimes in Wyoming has decreased from 23,384 in 1980 to 11,489 in 2016. We are all aware that Wyoming is having some money issues and Corrections is one of the largest sections of our State’s budget.

So what is going on here? If you think of the prison system as being like a bathtub, the faucet is large, wide open and flowing, the drain is stopped up, the sides of the tub are low and the water is stagnant. The DOC has advised the Legislature that we will need a new tub around 2020 at a cost of millions if no changes are made.

A freshman Senator commented at the Judicial Interim Committee meeting that Wyoming had a history of “Hang ‘em high” justice. What was not taken into account by this Senator is that about half of these inmates are incarcerated for behavior that was not criminal prior to the 1930’s.

The Judicial Interim Committee has begun the laborious process of studying individual components of previously mentioned CJR Bill for implementation, in essence going through the same process as the previous committee. Meanwhile the tub is filling, money is being spent, and the prison population is stagnating, all straining the State budget. Another significant factor is that the average age of our prison population is on the rise, bringing rising healthcare costs into the picture.

Wyoming Director of Corrections Robert Lampert is fond of saying “We need to incarcerate the people we are scared of, not the ones we are mad at.” This simple directive can solve the tub problem; violent threats to society should be incarcerated. Nonviolent offenders rehabilitated in the most cost effective, least intrusive means to society and themselves. Making more tools available to Judges, Prosecutors, Law Enforcement, Probation and Parole will facilitate this. Like all tools, these cost money, but will pay for themselves and more in the long run.

Some states call this “Justice Reinvestment.” The groundwork has been laid by the previous Judicial Interim Committee, now it needs to be implemented in a Wyoming-centric manner. As a friend of mine said to me (He keeps refusing to let me attribute the quote to him, but he wears a black robe when working) “We used to be known here in Wyoming for our common sense, we seem to have lost our way” That comment needs to be disproven.

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Thursday, 21 September 2017
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