Sunday, March 26, 2017

How many really need to be in Wyoming prisons?

Years ago, I accompanied former Wyoming Congressman Teno Roncalio as we drove past Rawlins. From the interstate, we could see the original prison in the heart of the town. From the late 1800s until the 1970s it was Wyoming’s only prison.

Teno glanced at the aged facility and said, “They should open the doors and let ‘em all out.”

That might shock those who didn’t know Teno. He was a compassionate man who occasionally used hyperbole to make his point. He didn’t mean “all.” He knew some couldn’t be released as a matter of public safety. A former prosecutor, he also knew there were many who shouldn’t have been there at all and others who had served more than enough time to pay their debts to society.

We learned during law school that prison sentences have four purposes; retribution, isolation, deterrence, and rehabilitation. In practice, it’s retribution that underlies too many sentencing decisions.

As a result, the U.S. has the world’s 2nd highest incarceration rate.  Seychelles, an Indian Ocean island archipelago is first. Wyoming does more than its fair share to help the U.S. compete for the “incarceration-nation” trophy.

Prisons are extraordinarily expensive as Wyoming is learning from the debate over whether to build another at a cost that could exceed a quarter of a billion dollars. Maybe policymakers should ask themselves whether the people filling our prisons are there because we’re afraid of them or because we’re mad at them.

There are 2,116 men and 290 women imprisoned in Wyoming. Thirty percent are there, not because their original crime warranted prison sentences, but because they violated probation. Of those, 70 percent, languish in expensive prison cells because their probation breach involved using drugs or alcohol. That tells you that hundreds are incarcerated because the criminal justice system is mad at them for failing an alcohol or drug test.

Most of them could be supervised less expensively and more effectively with a much smaller investment in drug courts or by prioritizing them in the community mental health system, which Wyoming already funds to the tune of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Of the 2,116 males in prison, a third are there for violent crimes. A slightly larger percentage is incarcerated for property and drug crimes. Among the 290 women in Wyoming’s prison, 44.5% are there for drug crimes, 26.6% for property crimes, and 19.3% for violent crimes.

There is another option, the one to which Teno alluded and President Barack Obama took. Wyoming should consider how many of the current inmates the taxpayers must continue to warehouse?

The former President reviewed the cases of thousands of federal inmates. He concluded that about 12% of them, including nine from Wyoming, could be safely released even though their full terms had not been served. He granted clemency to 1,715 inmates. Another 212 received pardons. For the most part, they were non-violent drug offenders. That totals 1,927 people for whom the taxpayers no longer pay to house.

Mr. Obama considered the pardons and commutations a recognition that the criminal justice system is broken and he felt he could, thereby, restore a sense of fairness. Governor Matt Mead should consider taking similar actions in order to restore some sense of fiscal responsibility as well as fairness to Wyoming’s justice system.

The Governor is, however, a former prosecutor. This would be hard for him to imagine. But sentencing is not a science and vengeance is expensive. There are some whose sentences were wildly disparate from the crime and others who received a fair sentence but their conduct has demonstrated rehabilitation.

Eliminating those imprisoned for violent crimes, the Governor should create a system designed to ferret out how many of the remaining 1,416 men and 234 women could be safely moved from costly prison cells and into the community. Then the legislature needs to fix the system so that those who are sent to prison are there because we are afraid of them and not because we are mad at them.

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