Wyoming joins other states in criminal justice reform

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SHERIDAN — Criminal justice reform is gaining traction in statehouses across the country and Wyoming is no exception.

That’s according to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice, a national nonprofit research center that advocates for reforms like better access to legal aid and improved family visitation for people in prison.

The report, released last week, said 46 states enacted some form of change to their sentencing and corrections laws, whether through legislation, ballot initiatives or executive orders. In total, there were 201 changes to state level criminal justice laws during 2014 and 2015, the two-year window studied.

Wyoming passed three laws in that time period that the report examined.

In 2015, Wyoming lawmakers expanded eligibility for deferred prosecution for first-time drug offenders to include offenses related to drug use, while previously only drug possession offenses were eligible.

Also last year, Wyoming moved to automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felony offenders who had completed their sentences. California, Maryland and New York passed similar laws.

In 2014, the Cowboy State required websites that publish arrest photographs to remove the photo and other personal information upon written request when the arrest did not result in conviction or the record was expunged.

The Vera Institute of Justice report categorized the myriad changes states are making to their criminal justice systems into three main trends. Wyoming’s changes checked the box in two of those three, for diverting people away from the criminal justice system and for supporting rehabilitation of offenders and reentry into the community.

The third category of reform states are making — reducing prison populations— did not take hold in Wyoming during the 2014-2015 time period examined. The states that did work to shrink prison populations used a variety of methods to do so.

Alaska raised the threshold for theft to be considered a felony from $500 to $750.

Delaware reclassified possession of 1 ounce or less of any controlled substance as a civil violation punishable by a fine.

California eliminated a 90-day minimum prison term for being under the influence of a controlled substance and opted to let judges require substance abuse treatment in place of incarceration for offenders who have no criminal history with drugs.

Maryland, North Dakota and Oklahoma all gave judges greater leeway to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences.

Illinois increased the amount of sentence credits — from 60 days to 90 days — for earning a GED while in custody.

Other popular reforms included veteran-related reforms and expanding substance abuse treatment laws to cover medication-assisted treatment for people addicted to opioids.

Many of the reforms underway across the country were spurred by the Great Recession and the need for states to cut spending, the report said.

Some Wyoming lawmakers wanted to do more in the 2016 budget session on criminal justice reform but did not secure enough support.

Rep. James Byrd, D-Cheyenne, sponsored a bill that would have banned employers from asking about applicants’ criminal history on employment applications, except in cases where that criminal history would disqualify the applicant from the job. The bill failed introduction.

Another bill introduced by the Judiciary Committee would have made first-time felony offenders eligible for parole for certain nonviolent offenses and enacted other reforms, including making inmates eligible for transfer to residential facilities within three years — and not two — of parole eligibility. The bill did not make it out of the Senate.

Members of the University of Wyoming Defender Aid Program, a law student clinic that provides legal assistance to low-income defenders, declined to comment on the new report and State Public Defender Diane Lozano could not immediately be reached.

By |June 1st, 2016|

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