As the national incarceration rate falls in tandem with crime, Wyoming’s prison population is steadily growing out of control. And as prison populations in Wyoming rise, so too does the cost. If the state continues on its current course, it will add 200 prisoners to the system by 2023, along with $50 million in expenses.
That cost might be palatable if the 200 residents being thrown behind bars were violent criminals — if their absence from society made us and our families safer.
But that’s simply not the case.
The majority of them will be nonviolent drug offenders, and most will be imprisoned for violating terms of their probation or parole. This is because at the root of Wyoming’s problem with recidivism is the widespread problem of substance abuse. When nonviolent offenders violate their terms of probation because they can’t stay clean, they’re sent back to prison.
And a person’s chances of being incarcerated again are much higher the longer they go without treatment or support. Most of the people who fail their probation do so in the early months of their term.
But here’s the rub: Eight-six percent of those on probation or parole from 2014 to 2017 didn’t receive access to needed substance abuse treatment. And that support could have easily made the difference between success and failure.
In other words, the system right now isn’t built to effectively rehabilitate; it’s built to grow prison populations. And while it continues to shackle nonviolent criminals to long sentences, in one way or another, Wyoming taxpayers are footing the bill.
That’s even more the case given that Wyoming is currently paying other states to house some of its inmates. Wyoming prisons are also housing inmates at county jails, which aren’t built or equipped to rehabilitate long-term prisoners.
Here’s the good news: Wyoming lawmakers are taking a serious look at criminal justice reform.
Several draft bills that are heading to the general session in 2019 aim to do something about the myriad issues plaguing our criminal justice system, starting with a bill that would reduce imprisonment resulting from probation or parole violations and one that would generate funding for treatment programs for addiction. The result of these efforts could reduce Wyoming’s prison population by 25 percent.
Providing treatment options, spending the money to offer such support on the front end, would ultimately lead to significant savings for the state, especially at a time when the budget is already stretched too thin.
We applaud these efforts to address an issue that’s looming large on the horizon. Already Wyoming is sending inmates with longer sentences to prisons in other states to make room for the growing population of inmates. Meanwhile, state and national crime rates are down. We shouldn’t be the exception to the rule.
When lawmakers gather for the general session next year, we urge them to see this legislation through. Rehabilitation efforts will reduce recidivism and decrease the burden on the coffers to house so many inmates. And ultimately, better rehabilitation efforts for nonviolent offenders are better for everyone.