CHEYENNE – A report issued recently by the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union urges lawmakers to take a serious look at criminal justice reform in an effort to remedy bloating prisons and budget cuts.
But some lawmakers and other officials say the organization’s concerns about the creation of new crimes and harsher sentences for existing ones is overblown.
The report states that one in 58 people in Wyoming are under state supervision. One in 130 is incarcerated.
Sabrina King of ACLU Wyoming said that’s largely because of the creation of new crimes.
In the last four years, the Wyoming Legislature has passed 28 bills establishing new crimes or increasing existing penalties, according to the report.
“Since legislation is considered and passed piece and parcel, it is easy to miss the impact of creating even just a few crimes every legislative session,” the report states. “But the proof of impact is in our full prisons and jails, our overcrowded courtrooms, and our busy and burdened defense attorneys.”
But Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, wasn’t buying the ACLU’s argument.
“I think Wyoming’s criminal justice system is right where it needs to be,” she said.
That’s in part because the system seems to be effective, she said.
Wyoming had the second-lowest recidivism rate for state prisons in 2007, according to a 2011 report from Pew Charitable Trusts. The study stated that less than 25 percent of prisoners returned to state facilities once they served their time – much lower than the national average of more than 43 percent.
And Nethercott said the majority of inmates in state facilities are violent or sex offenders. Those who are locked up for drug-related offenses are often there for intensive treatment, she said.
“I’m not sure it’s fair to just conclude that those offenders who are there for drug-related offenses are imprisoned specifically for punishment,” she said. “It’s for rehabilitation purposes as well.”
But there aren’t as many treatment opportunities available as there used to be due to recent budget cuts to inpatient treatment beds and an outpatient program for inmates.
The ACLU also urged lawmakers to take on sentencing reform by eliminating mandatory minimum penalties and refraining from passing tougher restrictions on existing crimes.
Laramie County District Attorney Jeremiah Sandburg said there would be drawbacks to that strategy, since extending those penalties sometimes allows judges more flexibility in sentencing people to probation.
Under Wyoming law, a mandatory minimum sentence can be served on probation. And extending existing penalties might allow someone more time on probation to pay restitution or to get treatment, he said.
“A lot of times we put them on probation (for property crimes) with the condition that they get a job,” he said. “It teaches them a lesson, it teaches them responsibility, and it teaches them that they can have a job.”
King said despite the lower cost, probation still means state supervision.
“If we’re coming from a standpoint of small government, that’s not small government.”