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A bill could restore the rights of some convicted felons

Marco Verch
Flickr via CC BY 2.0

Senate File 120 would fully restore civil rights to those convicted of certain non-violent felonies has cleared the Senate and is on its way to being debated in the House. It passed the Senate on a 24-7 vote on Feb. 2 and passed the House Judiciary Committee on a 9-0 vote on Feb. 21 before being referred to the House Appropriations Committee on Feb. 22.

Approximately 3,400 non-violent felons have had their rights restored since the legislature restored voting rights in 2017. But this bill would also allow these individuals to serve on a jury and hold public office, rights that are automatically lost in Wyoming if a person is convicted of a felony. While voting rights can be restored after someone completes their sentence, the bill provides that other rights would be restored after a period, either equal to the length of their sentence or five years, whichever is less.

“This is a bill that's been actually on my heart and on my mind for my entire tenure in the Wyoming Legislature, 10 years of [my] tenure,” said Sen. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), the sponsor of the bill. “And it comes from going door to door and going to those doors, when you knock on the door and they say, ‘Don't worry about me. I can't vote.’”

Barlow said he knocked on more doors after redistricting this most recent election season and encountered “probably half a dozen” people that said they couldn’t vote due to previous criminal convictions.

The bill would allow for the restoration of certain rights for those not convicted of “violent felonies.” Those convicted of murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, sexual assault in the first or second degree, robbery, aggravated assault, strangulation of a household member, aircraft hijacking, arson in the first or second degree, aggravated burglary, multiple domestic battery charges or causing bodily injury on a peace officer wouldn’t qualify for any restoration of their civil rights.

If convicted of any felony in Wyoming, another state, or at the federal level, there is nothing in Wyoming statute about loss or rights to use or possess a firearm, which is a federal law. The bill would bridge the gap between federal and state statutes.

“If you're going to do a restoration, that has to be complete, you can't do it for one thing and not another,” he said. “Therefore, just restoring your voting rights does not make you eligible for restoration of your firearm rights by the federal standards, so we have to restore the entirety of someone's rights, and if we also include firearms rights within state law, then I think it's the cleanest path.”

Barlow added that there aren’t options available to have these rights restored currently at the federal level.

“The challenge is the federal government is basically not doing any restorations, period,” said Barlow. “It's actually done through a budget issue. ‘Yes, we can do it but we’re not going to fund the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms] to actually do the process.’ That's my understanding…the concept of this bill is built off the restoration of voting rights in the state of Wyoming, which passed in 2017.”

Additional support came from members of the committee who were sympathetic to those who had been in trouble with the law in the past but didn’t realize they were prohibited from voting because of it.

“This summer, I called people that had been arrested for voting because they were felons,” said Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie). “There were several this year that were arrested for that specifically and overall, I mean, one guy specifically didn't even know he had a felony, he thought that his sentence had been deferred and it was very nonviolent [for] felony possession of marijuana. And he was confused, because he went to the county clerk, [and] a clerk registered him, and then he wanted to go vote for President Trump, and then he went to jail for it. ”

There were also sentiments that were aimed at supporting those who have been in trouble with the law but have since turned their lives around.

“In my other life [as a pastor], one of the things that we've been very blessed with is the opportunity to work with individuals that have made some poor decisions in their past but have changed, and so this is a heartache that I deal with on a weekly basis as individuals that truly have changed truly have cleaned up their life truly have come out victorious,” said Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland).

The Wyoming Department of Corrections expects they will need to hire an additional employee to put this bill in practice if it becomes law. They estimated it could cost $60,000 to do this.

“We release around 550 to 575 individuals from our institutions yearly, as well as three times as many on probation parole. So, you're looking at roughly 2,200 people per year if we went back from 2017 as an example if we added on to five years,” said Dan Shannon, Director of the Department of Corrections. “The data is very clear that those who have had their voting rights restored, that are participants in our communities, recidivism rates have receded and dropped.”

The bill originally included language that would provide for the restoration of rights for those convicted of misdemeanors related to domestic violence. However, this was dropped as it was ultimately deemed out of the purview of the bill and would come into conflict with federal law, which prohibits those convicted of domestic violence from owning or possessing firearms.

Despite the support for the bill, there are concerns about what the restoration of rights could mean, especially those with a history of domestic abuse.

“Our movement is learning and growing and we fully support the importance of restoring civil rights to those who have done their time, [and] we're fine with getting voting and all civil rights back right away when they've done their time, but not the gun rights,” said Tara Muir, Public Policy Director for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “The homicide rate among females murdered by males in our state in Wyoming was 2.8 per 100,000 people, which made Wyoming be the third highest homicide rate in the country, for men killing women…the eight people that were the women who were killed in Wyoming that year, 86 percent of the deaths were caused by a foreign firearm, and all eight were killed by their intimate partner or former intimate partner.”

Muir said women are five times more likely to be murdered when an abusive partner has access to a firearm. Their organization is working on language to possibly be added to the bill as an amendment that addresses the gun aspect, something Rep. Ken Chestek (D-Laramie) said he may work to do.

Restoring gun rights could prove complicated with how it relates on the federal level. Barlow said that because convicted felons don't have options to restore these rights, someone who has them restored in Wyoming at the state level may run into issues when attempting to purchase a gun and undergoes an ATF background check.

Corrected: February 23, 2023 at 12:16 PM MST
This story has been corrected to include a clarification about the differences between state and federal law on second amendment rights. Wyoming state statute doesn't include stipulations that prohibits a person convicted of any felony in any state or at the federal from losing their second amendment rights as this is only a federal law. The bill would bridge the gap between the state and federal law.

An additional quote from Sen. Eric Barlow has been added to add additional explanation on the restoration of second amendment rights.

A previous version of this story stated that the bill restored voting rights. This was done through a bill that was signed into law in 2017. Senate File 120 doesn't restore voting rights.
Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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