Every weekday at 2 p.m., men in orange jumpsuits file into a Casper courtroom for their first appearance before a judge.
Some of the men face charges for violent crimes such as domestic abuse, assault, rape and, on a rare occasion, murder.
Most, however, are there for nonviolent crimes: drunken driving, drug possession, shoplifting or burglary.
Some of the inmates, both violent and nonviolent offenders, will eventually serve probation or spend time at a local halfway house, called the Casper Re-Entry Center. But statistics show many of them, however, will spend time behind bars.
Similar scenes play out in other courtrooms across the state. Wyoming is one of few in the country with an increasing incarceration rate, which is driving up prison costs at a time when the state is experiencing a budget shortfall.
The state is left with two choices: reform criminal sentencing laws or spend nearly $20 million to update and expand prisons.
Wyoming crime and incarceration rates
Wyoming’s imprisonment rate grew faster than all but four other states between 2009 and 2014, according to a study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts in September. During those five years, Wyoming’s crime rate dropped 24 percent, while the state’s incarceration rate grew by 7 percent. This means fewer crimes are being reported, but more people are being locked up.
In 2010, Wyoming incarcerated three times the number of inmates as North Dakota, a state that was home to about 100,000 more people at the time, according to Pew’s Prison Count 2010.
Nationally, crime rates are about half of what they were in 1991, when they reached their highest, according to the September Pew study. Crime has fallen to levels not seen since the late 1960s. Experts attribute the low crime rates to better policing, the fading of the crack cocaine epidemic, reduced use of cash in favor of electronic payment methods and the spread of anti-crime technologies, such as car theft prevention devices.
Pew concedes increased imprisonment of dangerous offenders has played a role in decreasing crime. However, its research has found no clear correlation between higher incarceration and lower crime. Instead, 30 states reduced their imprisonment and crime rates from 2009 to 2014.
There’s isn’t agreement on why Wyoming’s trends differ with so many other states. Some attorneys say the state is locking up people who would be better served in probation or treatment programs.
Linda Burt, the former director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Wyoming, said it was politically popular for decades to “get tough on crime.” Because such laws were easy to pass, lawmakers put more crimes on the books and enacted longer sentences for already existing crimes.
“We’re putting people in jail that we’re mad at, not people we need to be safe from,” Burt said.
Cheyenne attorney Casandra Craven, who has studied the issue of sentencing reform, said the War on Drugs led to a large number of drug offenders behind bars.
“A lot of the mentality of the war on drugs is that consequences need to be instilled,” Craven said. But, she said, the punishment doesn’t often fit the crime.
Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen disagreed. He said prison inmates tend to be violent and repeat offenders who have been given multiple chances on probation.
“Our crime rate is down because repeat and violent offenders are locked up and they receive treatment in the facilities,” Blonigen said.
He also said sex offenders are receiving more substantial prison sentences.
Wyoming Department of Corrections officials say they will need $13.5 million to add 144 new beds to the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington and to update the facility. It would cost an additional $5 million a year to operate the space.
Department Director Bob Lampert has said the state wouldn’t have to spend the money if it changes the way offenders are sentenced. The department has recommended more residential drug rehab programs outside of prison, giving more first-time nonviolent offenders probation instead of time behind bars and offering inmates incentives to be released early on good behavior.
The Joint Judiciary Committee last year sponsored a bill with many of the department’s recommended reforms. However, the bill was not approved for introduction.
Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie and a member of the Judiciary, said he would oppose further funding for prisons until the legislature addresses sentence reform. It’s unclear whether the committee would agree with such a move. Judiciary Chairman David Miller nor Sen. Leland Christensen, another prominent member of the committee, responded to a message seeking comment.
The committee has been tasked with reviewing sentencing and alternatives to prison this year.
Alternative sentencing methods, such as probation and treatment options, are viewed as being “soft on crime,” Pelkey said. However, those programs often have a higher success rate than incarceration, the legislator said.
Wyoming has the second-lowest recidivism rate in the country. According to an academic paper authored by Craven, the Cheyenne attorney, a merit-based system used by probation and parole agents should receive credit. The Positive Reinforcements, Incentives, and Sanctions Matrix program (PRISM) provides positive reinforcement and sanctions for certain behavior.
Craven suggests a similar program be enacted in prisons, which could allow inmates to qualify for early release if they participate in programming and have good behavior. This would lower the prison population by letting out inmates who have demonstrated rehabilitation.
“It’s about people and what these people need,” Craven said. “Do they really need to sit in jail for months on end? No, they need treatment and they need jobs. They need something positive in their life.”
The Department of Corrections announced recently it would have to trim $17.9 million from its budget due to the state’s financial downturn. One way the agency plans to do this is by reducing the number of beds available in prison for substance abuse treatment. Pelkey worries this will cost the state more in the long run because inmates with drug and alcohol problems will be released without treatment and will likely get in more trouble.
Blonigen called the supervision parolees and probationers receive “questionable” due to cuts that have been made to counseling programs and a lack of enough probation and parole agents.
“If supervised release is to be an alternative to incarceration, in whole or part, it has to be meaningful,” he said.