CASPER — Wyoming could save $20 million and reduce incarceration by more than one-sixth if it deeply cuts prison sentences for drug crimes and altogether ends prison terms for possession conviction, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The suggestion comes as part of a report issued Tuesday that lays out a proposed path to halving Wyoming’s prison population by 2025, which the advocacy group says would save the state more than $160 million. The full set of proposed reforms calls for drastic cuts to sentencing guidelines and requirements in state courts and a significant reduction to the number of Wyoming residents behind bars.
The ACLU released the 32-page document as part of a nationwide analysis of state-level criminal justice systems, as part of a partnership with the Urban Institute. It comes at a time when the Wyoming Legislature has been considering a number of criminal justice reform bills intended to reduce the length of incarceration for low-level offenders in Wyoming’s justice system — an effort intended to counter the state’s rising incarceration rates.
Though the potential savings outlined in the report were substantial, the co-chairman of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee, Rep. Dan Kirkbride, R-Chugwater, said that many of the benchmarks outlined in the ACLU’s report were largely aspirational, and that significant reform, when it comes, will likely come slowly.
Many of the reforms passed by the Legislature in the 2019 general session only went into effect July 1. With no solid data yet available on whether those programs are succeeding, Kirkbride said there is currently little incentive for criminal justice reform skeptics in Cheyenne to push the issue further than they need to. State lawmakers in the 2019 Legislative Session killed a bill offering sentencing reforms for marijuana possession, for example, despite the ACLU report’s promise of cost savings through drug sentencing reforms and alternatives to incarceration.
“It’s kind of an aggressive agenda,” Kirkbride said of the report. “But I don’t say that critically — I appreciate people who have a vision for where government needs to go. It isn’t just a problem in Wyoming; it’s a problem nationally. We have a lot of people in prisons — the highest rate in the world for incarcerating people. If you’re really going to tackle the problem, maybe some of the aggressiveness is justified. We’ll see what the state’s appetite is for it in the years to come.”
The Wyoming director of the ACLU, Sabrina King, agreed. However, she said successful reforms will only come with consistent attention to the issue and an attitude of perpetual reform to make the state’s criminal justice system more effective than it has been.
By Nick Reynolds and Shane Sanderson
Casper Star-Tribune Via Wyoming News Exchange