A package of proposed bills would increase penalties for domestic and family violence in Wyoming and bring them in line with punishments for drug and property crimes.
As Wyoming’s statutes are now written, felonies are typically punishable by 10 years imprisonment. Aggravated felonies can warrant even longer prison sentences. But domestic and family violence crimes can result in far less prison time, said former prosecutor Brett Johnson.
The three bills, which Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said were born of a “holistic review” of Wyoming’s criminal statutes as they pertain to such crimes, were considered by the Joint Judiciary Committee in November.
The legislation the committee came up with would increase some domestic violence, stalking and strangulation penalties.
“The goal is to try to make the laws more uniform,” said Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, D-Rock Springs, who helped craft the bills in committee.
Last spring, a bill that would have rewritten domestic violence laws failed in committee following concerns that the bill’s language wasn’t consistent with the rest of the state’s statutes.
Following the session’s wrap-up, the Legislature’s Management Council then charged the Judiciary Committee with studying domestic and family violence issues, Anselmi-Dalton said.
After months of work with lawyers, judges and victim services advocates, the committee met in November to hash out language in the proposed legislation. At the same time, the committee worked on legislation that would rewrite laws to lower speeding fines and simplify the fine structure, expand the path to exoneration for wrongly convicted people and close loopholes in marijuana laws.
The committee proposed one bill that would expand the definition of stalking to include actions that would make a reasonable person fear for their own safety, that of another person or for the safety of their property. Although the bill’s language initially did not require a victim to testify to those impacts, it was changed in committee to require that prosecutors show someone was affected, Anselmi-Dalton said.
The current state statute only covers actions that would make a reasonable person “suffer substantial emotional distress, and which does in fact seriously alarm the person toward whom it is directed.”
If passed, the bill would increase the maximum punishment for misdemeanor stalking from six months to one year and increase the maximum penalty for felony stalking from five years to 10. The bill also gives judges the ability to sentence a person convicted of misdemeanor stalking to up to three years of probation, rather than the maximum of one year.
Another bill, which pertains largely to the process for seeking orders of protection, would make it a felony to stalk someone while under a domestic-violence protection order.
A third bill, which focuses on bringing domestic violence penalties in line with one another, would elevate strangulation of a household member and third or subsequent convictions of domestic battery to violent felonies. Although many felony convictions can be expunged under Wyoming law after 10 years, violent felonies cannot.
It would also mean judges could sentence people to six months in jail on a first offense for domestic assault. People convicted a second time could be sentenced to a year in jail. Under the current laws, a first conviction for domestic assault is punishable by a fine and a second conviction is punishable by up to six months in jail.
The bill would increase penalties on a third conviction for domestic battery to 10 years imprisonment. Under the current system, that crime is punishable by five years in prison.
Johnson, who spent a decade as a criminal prosecutor in Sweetwater and Natrona counties before moving to Natrona County’s Child Support Office, said the bill would align domestic violence crimes with penalties for other crimes.
Most felonies are punishable by up to a decade in prison, unlike domestic and family violence crimes, which tend to carry maximum sentences of five years imprisonment, Johnson said.
“The Legislature can set the tone for how these crimes are treated ... by police, prosecutors and society,” he said.
The bills, which are sponsored by the committee, still need to be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature to be considered during the 2018 budget session. The session convenes Feb. 12.