Wyoming takes another look at criminal justice reform

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By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com

Wyoming is taking another shot at comprehensive criminal justice reform, this time with a program backed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In Worland last week, lawmakers on the Joint Judiciary Committee heard from researchers from the nonpartisan Council of State Governments. The CSG is bringing to Wyoming a program called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative — funded largely by the DOJ and the Pew Charitable Trusts — that has assisted 30 states. The CSG researchers will spend the summer and fall meeting with the parties involved in Wyoming’s criminal justice system. They will then suggest policy options to the judiciary committee before the 2019 legislative session.

It’s not the first time an outside organization has taken a look at the state’s justice system with an eye toward reform — Pew sent researchers to the state in 2014, and the judiciary committee has been studying growth in Wyoming’s prison population for more than a decade. Past efforts have largely failed to turn into policy, though the Legislature passed some limited reforms in the most recent session.

Lawmakers and the CSG researchers expressed optimism about this new comprehensive effort, largely because of its endorsement by leaders of the three branches of Wyoming’s government. Still, a prominent prosecutor indicated he and his colleagues have doubts about the effort — and prosecutors in Wyoming have doomed reform efforts they didn’t like before.

Senate President Eli Bebout, Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, Gov. Matt Mead and Chief Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court James Burke all signed off on the state’s request to participate in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Mead and Bebout’s support is of note because both men played a role in the failure of a comprehensive package of criminal justice reform laws during the 2017 session. Mead enabled prosecutors to influence the legislation outside the public process, hurting its credibility with lawmakers. Bebout eventually killed the bill by holding it back from consideration on the Senate floor.

The new buy-in from those state leaders gave Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan), who has been a judiciary committee member since 2014, hope that this measure would succeed where past ones have failed. “It’s absolutely different,” he said. “I feel like we’re really going to get somewhere this time.”

State leaders have indicated that “we’re all of one mind,” Kinskey said. He described the message conveyed by state leaders as: “We really need to work across all departments to make this thing happen.”

Having that mandate should push law enforcement agencies seeking to punish offenders, the judges that decide those penalties, and the corrections officials seeking to stave off prison overflows to seek compromise. It’s a mandate seen as critical to success by experts in criminal justice reform.

“You have to have everybody at the table or it’s just going to fail,” Kinskey said.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative only engages with states in which all three branches of government have indicated a willingness to seek results, said Marc Pelka, the deputy director of state initiatives for the CSG’s Justice Center. “I think the willingness to participate is the standard we set for engagement,” he said.

It’s likely only four states will receive the level of investment from CSG that Wyoming will get this year, he said.

With the exception of Chief Justice Burke, however, there is a chance the men who signed the document will be out of power by the 2019 session. Mead’s time as governor is up in January, and tradition dictates that Harshman and Bebout serve only one term as House Speaker and Senate President. Harshman told WyoFile in March that he was considering bucking that tradition.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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