Funding woes threaten criminal justice reform

Prison officials and advocates worry a lack of funding will kill hard-fought-for criminal justice reform before it can have an impact.

The governor’s budget office recommended Gov. Mark Gordon deny a request to renew funding for a key part of the new program, Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert told a legislative committee on Oct. 31.

The budget request was for around $3.5 million for the next two years, WDOC deputy director Steve Lindly told WyoFile on Wednesday. The funding would be for a series of programs designed to administer sanctions and treatment to people who violate probation and parole as opposed to sending them straight back to prison. 

Lawmakers put the programs into law last legislative session, which marked a significant victory for reform advocates who have suffered years of defeat in the Capitol. Proponents of the measure were armed with data showing that more than half the people entering Wyoming’s crowded prisons had failed the conditions of probation or parole, as opposed to committing new crimes. 

Less than a year later, the DOC is beginning to implement the programs using county jails and treatment centers. 

Without funding, however, the progress will stall before the state ever sees results, Lindly said. “Laws would be on the books but the thing wouldn’t be operational,” he said.

The governor hasn’t made a decision on the budget requests yet, Gordon’s spokesperson Michael Pearlman said. “It’s premature at this point to say the request has been denied,” he wrote in an email.

Last fall, experts with the Council of State Governments estimated Wyoming will have to build or contract space for 201 new prison beds by 2023 if incarceration rates don’t slow. Using WDOC data, the CSG researchers estimated the new beds would cost taxpayers more than $50 million.

This week, WDOC officials told lawmakers the state could save millions just by slowing the amount of money the agency is paying to rent beds in jails and in out-of-state private prisons, as its own facilities are full. There are approximately 160 WDOC inmates currently in “rented” beds, Lampert said last week. 

Reform advocates also seek more money to continue expanding the justice reform effort. On Wednesday, the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee voted to sponsor a bill that directs the Wyoming Department of Health and DOC to partner on an effort to target mental health and substance abuse treatment to those caught up in the criminal justice system. More than 80% of those in jails and prisons struggle with one or both challenges, Lindly said. 

DOC is asking for nearly $650,000 to hire three new employees to monitor the diagnosing of mental health and substance abuse among those entering the state’s sprawling network of prisons, probation programs and treatment centers. 

Though the legislative committee advanced the bill, they killed a tax proposed to fund it on the same day. The committee narrowly killed an increase to alcohol taxes that would have raised what the Legislative Service Office estimated would be $1.9 million a year.

The bill would have doubled the state tax on beer, wine and liquor for three years. On its face, the tax was slight. For a six-pack of beer, the measure would have raised the tax by approximately one and a half cents, according to Greg Cook with the Wyoming Liquor Division.

Half the money would have gone to the DOH for mental health and substance abuse programming. The other half would have gone to DOC to ensure such treatment for parolees and probationers. 

In today’s budget picture, asking for new money for new programming “simply cannot pass,” said Senate Labor Committee Chairman Charles Scott (R-Casper), who brought the bill.

“Under those circumstances, we need to go looking [for funding],” Scott said, “and this is the place that I can find it.” 

A lobbyist for the liquor industry opposed the bill. “We’re asking responsible consumers of alcohol, the vast majority,” Wyoming State Liquor Association’s Mike Moser said, “to … pay for people with mental health problems and people with drug addictions.”

Wyoming has among the lowest taxes on alcohol in the nation — they have not been updated since the 1930s, according to the testimony. The state collects revenue on booze by charging a 17.6% markup on the price of alcohol, which it distributes.

Mosier also argued the new tax would make Wyoming’s liquor stores uncompetitive with neighboring states. Lawmakers took issue with the assertion. 

The tax would raise the price on Rep. Tim Hallinan’s favorite bottle of bourbon by $0.23, Hallinan (R-Gillette) said. “I don’t see how that’s going to affect anybody whether they’re going to buy or not buy,” he said. 

The bill failed, however, on a 6-7 vote. Sens. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer), Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), Stephen Pappas (R-Cheyenne) and Reps. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), Clarence Styvar (R-Cheyenne), Pat Sweeney (R-Casper) and House Labor Committee Chairwoman Sue Wilson (R-Cheyenne) voted against the bill. 

Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette) was absent.

Some lawmakers who opposed the tax had also opposed the bill establishing the collaboration between the DOH and DOC that the measure was engineered to fund. Corrections could have done more to treat its inmates for years, Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) said. “When I hear that when we add three more bureaucrats it’s going to fix it, I just don’t buy it,” he told WyoFile. 

Reform advocates have argued that the creation of the sanction programs in statute was necessary to force the state’s criminal justice system — which includes prosecutors and judges who set sentencing the DOC carries out — to stem the flow into prisons.

WDOC will be asking for money to expand prisons this legislative session, Lampert said last week. The department is asking for funds to add more beds to the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk and the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp in Newcastle, he told the Joint Judiciary Committee. 

The state will spend money on criminal offenders one way or another, ACLU of Wyoming director Sabrina King said.

“It is not a matter of whether or not we spend the money, it is a matter of how we allocate the money,” King said. “We should be allocating the money in ways that help people recover and stay out of prison.”

Justice reform, or justice reinvestment as the current strategy is labeled, is cheaper in the long term than enlarging prisons, she said. “Our budget is going to get tighter if we do not fund the reinvestment programs, because we’re going to build more beds that will permanently tie us to increased funding for prisons.”


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