Senate committee advances bill aiming to reduce recidivism rates

CHEYENNE — A bill aiming to reduce Wyoming's recidivism rates won unanimous approval Wednesday morning from the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, and the state's prison chief said it includes enough funding to get the program off the ground.

House Bill 31, which won approval from the House of Representatives last week, would set up a program for local behavioral health treatment providers to improve outcomes for people who have been involved in the state's criminal justice system.

The state has been looking at ways to reduce its recidivism rates over the past year, largely through a bill passed last session that tweaked the state's parole process. During the meeting Wednesday morning, Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert told lawmakers the efforts so far have reduced the state's prison population by 46 people, but added "despite those impacts, there's still more to do."

Recidivism is a primary reason many people are in prison in Wyoming. A 2018 report presented to lawmakers showed 54% of admissions to prison were due to probation or parole violations the year before in Wyoming.

Last summer, the WDOC conducted a survey of treatment providers across the state, and their answers highlighted the need for HB 31. Lampert pointed to four key barriers identified in the survey: variations in service costs, in the administration of mental health assessments, in the programs' quality and in providers' knowledge of how to deliver services to people leaving the criminal justice system.

"The bill in front of you is intended to help address those gaps, improve outcomes and reduce recidivism for people in the criminal justice system with behavioral health needs," Lampert told lawmakers Wednesday.

The program, to be run jointly by the Wyoming Department of Corrections and the state Department of Health, would also create a quality improvement unit composed of three WDOC employees to oversee the statewide effort.

"Its primary task will be to make sure the assessments are standardized ... and delivered in the same way (and) interpreted between them on how to do the assessment correctly and making sure that it's consistent across the board from one provider to another," Lampert said.

The bill originally included $650,000 from the state's general fund and three newly authorized positions to get the program off the ground. But amendments approved by the House cut that funding in half, to about $325,000, and got rid of the additional positions.

Despite the cuts, Lampert said the funding was enough to get the program going, albeit more slowly than with the original appropriation.

"Not having the positions, we can deal with (that), because we have frozen positions that we can apply the money to," Lampert said. "But as I said, with half the appropriations, we won't be able to gear up as quickly or as broadly as recently intended. I won't say it's half-done; it'll just take longer."

In response, Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, said he would love to try reinserting the other half of the funding, but added he didn't have a "snowball's chance in hell" of getting it done.

The bill, which has the support of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, also reflects a broader philosophical discussion about criminal justice reform in the state, as Wyoming Department of Health deputy director Stefan Johansson told lawmakers during the meeting.

"The discussion that's taking place is the state attempting to find a balance to strike between a general access community mental health and substance abuse system and a population-prioritized mental health and substance abuse system," Johansson said. "No judgment call on either type of system, it just seems ... that's the question that this committee, the Legislature and the executive branch are trying to answer."

Johannson said the health department's top priority would first be to look at what its providers already offer and consider "administrative restructuring" to make those existing resources work more efficiently.

Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, noted the efficiencies found through the bill would be worth it in the long run.

"This may be money that actually saves us money, especially as we've dealt with a lot of issues between the (DOC) and the health department and all the walls that get put up," Bouchard said. "This is a good step, and I think we can even sell this on the floor that this is an area we're going to use to save money."

Ryan Jackson, CEO of the Wyoming Business Coalition on Health, noted the return on investment with the program is projected to save the state about $5.27 for every dollar committed to the program.

Lawmakers may look again at criminal justice reform during the 2020 interim session, but in the meantime, HB 31 could be the only committee-sponsored criminal justice reform passed during the Legislature's budget session.

After a proposal to create a mental health task force was passed by the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee during the interim session, the bill fell six votes short of being introduced in the House. The joint committee also rejected an alcohol tax increase that would have helped fund substance use treatment programs during its November meeting.

After winning approval in the House and from the Senate committee, HB 31 will need to pass three votes on the Senate floor before going to Gov. Mark Gordon's desk.

After winning approval in the House and from the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, House 31 will need to pass three votes on the Senate floor before going to Gov. Mark Gordon's desk for consideration.