In Wyoming, judges may recommend criminals under the age of 25 be sent to boot camp. The program emphasizes work and physical activity, and successful completion makes individuals eligible for early release.
But the state’s boot camp program is only open to young male offenders — a violation of women’s civil rights, according to a class action lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Taylor Blanchard is suing on behalf of herself and other women who would be eligible for the program if it were not for their gender. Blanchard was ordered to serve her six to 10 year sentence, despite a judge’s recommendation that she be allowed to attend a boot camp program, which lasts for six months according to the Department of Correction’s website. Prisoners are generally released immediately following graduation from the camp.
“As far as we can tell, Taylor’s the first woman to ever get a boot camp recommendation,” said John Robinson, Blanchard’s attorney in the lawsuit.
Officially known as the Youthful Offender Program, the law allows judges to offer young people in trouble with the law a chance to reform themselves.
“We believe if we catch (offenders) young and work intensely with them, we can give them the tools they need to keep them from going down the path of career criminals,” boot camp spokeswoman Wanda Kerns told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in 2013.
That may have been District Court Judge Marvin Tyler’s goal when he recommended boot camp for Blanchard, who had violated probation, in May. Tyler highlighted the limited opportunities for women convicted in Sublette County. He said that full imprisonment or probation with relatively limited supervision were the only options, unlike surrounding counties that offer more intensive versions of probation.
“To my knowledge there are no (Adult Community Corrections) programs or halfway houses that accept women in Wyoming,” Tyler said during Blanchard’s sentencing. “But there are three for men.”
John LaBuda, the Pinedale attorney who served as Blanchard’s public defender, told the judge that because the law authorizing the Youthful Offender Program did not have a gender-based requirement, denying her the opportunity to participate would violate the state constitution.
“I find that you qualify,” he told Blanchard.
He then added: “I can’t tell them what to do. I just give my recommendation.”
The lawsuit claims that the Wyoming Department of Corrections refused to allow Blanchard to attend the state-run boot camp in Newcastle and also declined her request to attend a boot camp that accepted women in another state.
“The Deputy Attorney General advised that Ms. Blanchard would not be given such an opportunity,” Robinson wrote in the lawsuit. The American Civil Liberties Union has joined in the complaint.
The lawsuit claims that by failing to operate a boot camp for women, the DOC has effectively barred women from participating in the Youthful Offender Program.
That, Robinson argues, is a violation of Blanchard’s civil rights and those of all women who may be recommended for the program in the future.
Blanchard was originally sentenced to probation on drug charges, and Tyler recommended boot camp after Blanchard failed to complete a required in-patient substance abuse program.
Filed in federal court, the lawsuit seeks an order requiring the Department of Corrections to allow women to participate in a Wyoming boot camp or one in a different state.
In addition to the possibility of early release, the Newcastle-based boot camp offers services like job training and anger management skills.
LaBuda said that when he works for young clients who haven’t previously been convicted of major crimes he always seeks a boot camp recommendation from the judge.
But he had never done so for a female client.
“I probably had hundreds through the years who were eligible, and no one’s ever asked for it,” LaBuda said. “It just came to me one day: Why can’t we ask for a boot camp recommendation for a female?”
Department of Corrections spokesman Mark Horan said prison officials were not immediately available to comment but added that the agency typically does not comment on active litigation.