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Wyoming legislators want to learn why less crime produces more prisoners

Wyoming legislators want to learn why less crime produces more prisoners

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CHEYENNE — State officials pulled back a request for money to expand the medium security prison at Torrington to take a deep look at Wyoming's entire corrections system before adding more beds.

The Legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee will be pushing for an interim study to find out why the prison population is growing while the crime rate has declined overall.

The study entails bringing in national corrections experts, a move some lawmakers and district judges resist, said Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, who is leading the support for an outside look.

"Not everybody is in favor of someone from the outside telling us what to do," Schiffer said. But the judiciary committee, he said, will set the policy for the state.

The Department of Corrections has been and will be gathering data for the study. That information was not available several years ago, when Schiffer first looked at the prison population issue. During the interim, the Department of Corrections can absorb growth in the prison population without building any new prison beds, said Director Bob Lampert. 

That will be only for the short term and will require the state to invest more in alternatives, such as placements in the adult community correction centers at Casper, Gillette and Cheyenne, and more use of boot camp for young offenders, he said.

It also is possible to use split sentencing so that offenders can bypass prison entirely and serve their sentences in local jails and be released from there on parole.

The Corrections Department earlier requested $11.5 million in the new budget for the 2005-2016 fiscal year to expand the medium security prison for men at Torrington to add 144 beds. Lampert later asked the governor to disapprove the request in favor of the study. 

In December, Wyoming had the lowest rate in the nation of inmates who are returned to prison. Of the 24 percent of repeaters, most return to prison for violation of conditions of their release rather than for a new crime.

The only reason prison numbers grow is that more people are coming in the front door than are are leaving out the back door, Lampert said in an interview last week. The cause is that either longer sentences are being imposed or fewer people are being paroled.

Wyoming had a total of 2,013 inmates at the end of 2013, including women at the corrections center at Lusk. This is an increase of 90 inmates since the state brought inmates back from out-of-state prisons in 2011.

The women's facility has grown faster than anticipated. The Lusk prison was expanded to a capacity of 280 in 2007, and the number of inmates has nearly reached that capacity already. "As I've been telling anybody who will listen for the last ten years, "Let's use our prison beds for people we're afraid of. Let's not use them for people we're mad at," Lampert said.

Schiffer said he agrees with Lampert's philosophy. "That's kind of what's driving this," Schiffer said. "If we can use the resources we have now in a better fashion, let's do it. We're not talking about letting sex offenders or murderers out on the street. We want to see if there are alternatives to building or expanding the prisons."

Schiffer said most of the district judges support the study, but not all of them. Judge John Perry of Gillette is a big supporter, he added.

He said he also told the sheriffs he met with not to be afraid of the study or how it will affect their jail operations. 

Schiffer has encouraged the judiciary committee members to visit the prisons and alternative corrections programs in their areas.

The national centers that provide experts for the corrections initiatives include Department of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Department of Justice Reinvestment and the Pew Center of the States.

The experts look at the state data, meet with people, and offer options based on the numbers but let the states tailor them to their individual needs. 

If the experts are not successful in finding other alternatives, then the state can proceed with the prison expansion, Lampert said. 

Contact Joan Barron at 307-632-1244 or joan.barron@trib.com

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