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Incarceration Rates

An inmate signs documents during a court appearance on March 21 in Casper. Wyoming lawmakers are looking to address the state's incarceration issues.

Wyoming has an incarceration problem.

While the rest of the country has been putting fewer people in prison year after year, Wyoming’s prison population is actually growing to the point where inmates, in recent years, have been sent to serve their time in other states. And while incarceration rates have fallen approximately 10 percent in the last decade, Wyoming’s incarceration rate has actually grown by about 8 percent, even as crime rates both at the state and national level have dropped.

One of the main drivers of the issue? That the people who end up in jail eventually come back.

If nothing changes, said David D’Amora, a senior policy adviser for the Council of State Governments, the state’s prison system will need to add more than 200 beds by 2023, according to data included in a presentation he made to state lawmakers this month, all at high cost to taxpayers.

Considering the cost of contracting additional beds for those inmates ($21 million over five years) and increasing the state’s current capacity enough to return out-of-state inmates to Wyoming ($30 million), CSG research anticipates a price tag of more than $50 million in taxpayer dollars over the next five years.

“The numbers are concerning, to put it mildly,” D’Amora told members of the Joint Committee on Labor, Health and Human Services at its Monday meeting in Cheyenne.

However, this price tag might not be an inevitability: State lawmakers believe that pieces of this trend could begin to be reversed in this coming session with a number of new bills to help address one of the root causes behind the state’s high incarceration rate: a lack of funding to combat substance abuse through increased treatment, which D’Amora said could help decrease the state’s incarceration rate by up to 25 percent or more. According to CSG data, the state is spending $30 million per year on revocations alone — money that D’Amora said could be better spent on providing people in the system with treatment they need to avoid cycling back into Wyoming’s corrections system.

Four bills to address problems rooted in solving the state’s high rates of recidivism will be sponsored by the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee this coming session, in the hope that spending more on treatment and less on incarceration could both save the state millions of dollars while, at the same time, reducing Wyoming’s prison population by upward of 25 percent.

This could be significant: A 25 percent reduction in probation and parole revocation could mean 285 fewer beds occupied by 2024, according to data reviewed by the Joint Judiciary Committee last week, potentially resulting in $18.1 million in savings over five years in contract prison bed costs — money that could be spent on expanded treatment options to further reform the state’s correction system.

“If the bill drafts that the joint judiciary committee voted unanimously to sponsor on Friday are enacted, it will actually help Wyoming reduce recidivism by 25 percent, and it will avoid $18 million in corrections costs over five years,” D’Amora said Monday. “That will indeed allow the state to reinvest starting next year, in some proportion, to enhance access to folks on probation and parole to timely, specialized services and still have a net savings over what it would have cost to build or contract for those additional prison beds.”

All the state has to do is be willing to spend a little money up front.

“It will cost money, but the money we’ll save a few years from now when we don’t have to build new facilities,” said Rep. Dan Kirkbride R-Chugwater, who chairs the Judiciary Committee.

Funding for the legislation, he said, would likely come as a fiscal note tacked onto the governor’s budget that will be discussed this coming year. The spending would be introduced after review and approval by the legislature’s appropriations committee.

“It’s a deal where you’ve got to spend money upfront, and in a tight budget, it’s something you have to look at carefully,” Kirkbride said.

Addiction and incarceration

One of the most significant contributors to Wyoming’s rising incarceration rate is substance abuse: According to information provided to lawmakers this past week, approximately 90 percent of the prison population requires some sort of treatment for their addiction, and approximately 16 percent of all arrests made in 2016 were related to possession.

Half of all sentences levied, D’Amora said, were related to non-violent offenses, many of which related to some form of violation of the conditions of their release.

“Another way to look at it is that 30 percent of the prison population is made up of people who have violated probation or parole, as opposed to committing a new crime,” he told the Joint Committee of Labor, Health and Human Services on Monday.

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Given the volume of the prison population, there appears to be a correlation between addiction and incarceration. However, only half of people on felony supervision who have been flagged as having a substance abuse problem have been seen by a treatment center after their sentence, D’Amora said. Of that population, only about a quarter access those services within a week, while 54 percent wait a month or longer to get into treatment, which D’Amora said reduces the chances their treatment will be successful.

Offering some background, Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Powell, said Thursday that data showed 36 months is the “breaking point” for probation, and that most people who fail at probation do so earlier rather than later. According to figures he cited from CSG, they saw no significant changes in recidivism rates for those on probation longer than three years. The theory, backed by research, goes that a maximum probation of two years, with intervention involved at the front end, was a data-driven approach to provide intensive treatments within a quicker time frame, thus reducing recidivism overall.

“The side we’re looking for is a reallocation of those resources from DOC for substance abuse, treatment or personnel time on the front end because we know that if we have interventions within the first two months, that that’s where we saw a significant reduction in recidivism,” he said. “That’s where it comes down to a decision in the legislative arena, because the alternative is to look at a $50 million expenditure for a prison.”

Potential reforms

Of five bills discussed by members of the Judiciary Committee last week, several will be drafted into bills ahead of this winter’s legislative session in what several legislators have expressed could be a banner year for criminal justice reform. The five bills are part of a package of bills designed to reduce recidivism and free up funding to reinvest in access to “timely, specialized community substance addiction or mental health treatment” for those on probation or parole, which, according to information presented at Thursday’s meeting, can last longer than three years for 60 percent of those in the system.

Each of the bills will address varying aspects of the re-entry process. Some are very basic, like setting a maximum on the length of parole to help avoid re-incarcerating people for small infractions while retaining intensive supervision for high-risk offenders. Other pieces look to streamline the channels of communication between the parole system and treatment providers in order to better connect those re-entering society with rehabilitation services.

At last week’s meetings, input on the reforms was fielded from almost every level of the criminal justice system, including the directors of the state Department of Corrections, the Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police and the Board of Parole, as well as the state public defender and Attorney General Peter Michael. The representatives generally spoke favorably of the reforms. Some, however, offered some ideas that may not have been considered. Tom Jubin, of the Trial Lawyers Association, did speculate that a shortened probation period might compel judges to sentence people to prison over a term they may see as “punitive.”

The involvement of all the agencies involved may actually have helped to improve the chances of these reforms passing this year, Kirkbride said.

“I think we’ve gotten more of the parties affected by it on board early,” he said. “Everyone in the legislature is more aware of what’s going on, and that will improve chances of passing legislation in these areas.”

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