Wyoming Works To Reduce High Numbers Returning To Prison

Sep 28, 2018

CSG's Marc Pelka discusses the CSG proposal earlier this month in Laramie.
Credit Bob Beck

Wyoming's prisons are overcrowded to the point that the Department of Corrections has had to ship some inmates out of state. An analysis of the Wyoming prison system shows that over 50 percent of those behind bars are there due to probation or parole violations. Lawmakers were told that they could save millions if they found a way to keep those people from returning to prison.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center presented possible solutions to the legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee. The CSG was asked to take a closer look at Wyoming's prison system earlier this year, and the project was overseen by Deputy Director Marc Pelka. He said there is a problem.

"So Wyoming's prison population is projected to grow by about 200 people in the next five years and it's currently operating at full capacity," said Pelka.

He said people who violate probation or parole frequently do so because of a substance abuse violation, or something as simple as missing a meeting with a probation and parole officer. And these probation violators don't just go away for a few days. They average about 19 months during their return stay in prison.

"Because of the lengths of stay that people spend in prison on a probation and parole revocation, it causes those people to occupy 30 percent of Wyoming's prison beds on a given day. And Wyoming spends over 30 million dollars incarcerating that population" said Pelka.

Pelka suggests changing how probation and parole officials deal with those who are released from prison, and he'd like to see more resources directed towards those people and, if sanctions are needed, he'd prefer penalties that don't return people to prison.

Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent agreed, saying she prefers a policy change that would look at local solutions as opposed to sending people back to prison.

"We've got to take that option off the table and find all other alternatives for drug offenses and how to treat them," said Trent. "The drug treatment program is an incredible programing piece."

Trent said that approach gets more people involved in someone's rehabilitation and can keep people from re-offending.

"The programing model allows for that daily, weekly interaction," said Trent. "You have a team working around you, teaching you life skills that you would have hoped that they had established when they were younger, and this helps them to get into treatment. So I would say we have not provided all of the tools that we have."

Trent said currently that option is voluntary and so the law would need to be changed to make that mandatory for those who need it.

Another idea is more mental health treatment in communities and increasing the number of people who are placed into Adult Community Corrections programs which normally have openings. But the problem is that not every community has those resources.

Senator Tara Nethercott said prevention is important, but it's also costly.

"How the state pays for those I think is very challenging," said Nethercott. "And I think there needs to be a stronger public-private partnership of understanding that some of those private non-profits are going to need to see a stronger relationship with the state that provide those services, substance abuse services, mental health services, that can really get into that community more effectively."

Representatives of the Council of State Governments point out that if the state can keep people from both returning to prison and going there in the first place, it will save millions of dollars that can be shifted into treatment.

Nethercott also noted that the Department of Corrections currently has the tools to make a number of changes internally, such as reducing the length of time someone is under supervision and changes how it treats those people on probation and parole.

Department Director Bob Lampert said they are working with the Wyoming Department of Health on some behavioral health treatment solutions.

Meanwhile, the legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee will consider some bills at its November meeting that could also help. Sometimes justice reform efforts stall in the legislative process, but House Judiciary Chairman Dan Kirkbride is optimistic.

"We can hardly dismiss the possibilities of this, given our financial state," said Kirkbride. "That every time we say no to this kind of thinking we are taking money out of our pocket with the other hand. And it's catching up with us. "

CSG said justice reinvestment efforts have worked well in other locations, and Pelka is excited about what could happen in this state.