Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Lock ‘Em Up and Throw Away the Key

We believe that the character of society should be judged on how we treat our most vulnerable members. The ACLU of Wyoming advocates for the safe and humane treatment of prisoners – both for their sake while they are incarcerated and for society’s sake when they are released.

While it’s easy to think we can just “lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” about 97% of Wyoming prisoners will eventually return to our communities. How we treat prisoners should give us an idea of what we can expect from them when they come home.

Last week, we released our annual report, Incarceration in Wyoming, which compiles data of complaints our organization received from prisoners in Wyoming in 2013. Prisoners requesting assistance with their criminal cases generated nearly fifteen percent of complaints from Department of Corrections prisoners, which is more than double the number from the previous year, and over twenty percent of complaints from prisoners in jails. Oftentimes, people sitting in jail request help with their criminal cases before they go to trial. People who are writing from prison are requesting help on cases for which they have been tried and sentenced. This may reflect a growing loss of faith in the integrity of the justice system. There was a significant decrease in complaints of inadequate medical care in both jails and prisons; however, we believe that access to adequate medical and mental health care remains a serious problem for prisoners.

This year’s report focuses on the cost of overincarceration in Wyoming, and across the country. More Americans are imprisoned than ever before at a great cost to taxpayers, with limited benefits to public safety. There are 2.3 million people behind bars in this country – which is larger than prison populations in either China or Russia. Our bloated prison system has grown not as a result of an increase in crime, but in large part due to changes in sentencing policies and the war on drugs.
In Wyoming, less than one tenth of crimes are considered violent – property crimes alone constitute approximately 91% of the crimes in the state. A quarter of those incarcerated in America are locked up for drug offenses, and in 2010, at least 67% of all drug arrests in Wyoming was for simple marijuana possession. These are staggering numbers when you consider that it costs between $35,000-$53,000 per prisoner per year to keep people in prison in Wyoming. In fact, the biennial budget for the Wyoming Department of Corrections rose to over $300 million in 2013-14.

Studies have shown that prison does not deter crime. In addition to keeping communities safe and treating people fairly, our criminal justice system should be cost effective – using taxpayer dollars and public resources wisely. We can reduce the amount we spend on corrections – not by slashing budgets and forcing prison officials to take shortcuts and cut rehabilitative programming, but by reconsidering who we send to prison in the first place.

In order to reduce incarceration, we recommend:

         Expanding the use of deferred adjudication and expungement of criminal records for 
        low-level offenders
         Reducing reliance on pre-trial detention
         Increasing use of alternatives to incarceration, such as community sentencing
         Instituting a review process to consider modification of sentence after a period of 
         Expanding time credits for good behavior
         Legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana use and possession

Incarceration includes a directory of all Wyoming Department of Corrections institutions and county jails, along with “Know Your Rights” information. We distribute these resource guides to inform prisoners of their constitutional rights depending on the nature of their complaint.

 >>> Download<<< Incarceration in Wyoming: 2013 Report on Prison and Jail Complaints (in pdf)