‘Good time’ rolling soon to a jail near you?

A section of barbed wire fence surrounds a now-abandoned part of the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins. In 2017, the population of Wyoming’s criminal justice system is larger than that of eight Wyoming counties. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

June 11, 2019 by Andrew Graham, WyoFile

Criminal offenders last year spent an average of two months sitting in county jails awaiting transfer to prisons after being sentenced to them by a judge, according to the Wyoming Department of Corrections. 

Officials from the agency asked the Joint Judiciary Committee to consider a law change last week to let offenders earn credit for good behavior in jails while they wait. Starting the “good time” clock in jail, they argued, is fairer to those offenders who sit in jail through no fault of their own. The change would also help reduce the state’s prison population by shortening sentences.

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The committee voted unanimously to draft legislation.

In 2018, the average time between someone being sentenced and being checked into the prison where they’ll spend their time was 57 days, according to WDOC. Unlike prisons, jails are designed to house people for short stays while they await trial. The facilities typically lack the same level of access to fresh air, healthcare, counseling, vocational and educational programming and other services more available in prisons, themselves not known for comfort and amenities. 

The time sitting in jail is also time during which inmates can’t earn credit toward expedited release. 

Inmates in prison who follow the rules can earn what’s called “good time.” For every day of good time earned, an inmate can receive roughly one third of a day off of his or her sentence, hastening eligibility for parole or release. The way Wyoming’s good time law is written today however excludes inmates who have been sentenced but have yet to be taken from jail to prison.  

Wyoming’s prisons have been full for some time. Lawmakers have sought to create more alternatives to incarceration, particularly for offenders who violate the conditions of probation and parole, as opposed to committing new crimes. Ultimately, the goal of reformers is to shift money from paying for prison costs by investing instead in alternatives they say are cheaper and more effective — substance abuse treatment programs and better supervision programs for criminal offenders in their communities. 

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a series of reform laws. WDOC is still implementing many of the new programs and options created by the Legislature, Deputy Director Steve Lindly told lawmakers last week in Gillette. At the same time, the department continues to eye further law changes to turn the tide on incarceration rates in Wyoming and ease the strain on the prison system. 

Systemic challenges

The ask by WDOC officials came at a committee hearing where judges, prosecutors and attorneys continued to give lawmakers evidence of a growing crisis in the state’s judicial system. Lawmakers were flummoxed by a fresh crisis in the Wyoming Public Defender’s office, the director of which claimed the number of cases her attorneys are receiving is overwhelming their ability to provide a constitutionally sufficient defense for indigent offenders who face prison or jail time. 

Branches of the agency in two of Wyoming’s most populous counties — Natrona and Campbell — have stopped accepting misdemeanor offender cases. Judges in Campbell County charged the chief public defender, Diane Lozano, with contempt of court, and the whole matter is now before the Wyoming Supreme Court. 

In response, lawmakers discussed the possibility of removing jail and prison time as a punishment for some minor criminal offenses. They proposed no action on that idea yet, but did advance a proposal brought by the agriculture industry to ease the prosecution of trespassers. Trespassing can earn imprisonment. 

“Is that fair?”

Meanwhile, WDOC Director Bob Lampert asked the Joint Judiciary Committee to rewrite the current law so that good time could be awarded if the inmate behaves in jail in a way that would earn him or her good time in prison. The rule change could apply to both time spent in jail while someone awaits trial and time spent in jail after being sentenced but before WDOC signs a convicted offender into a prison. 

Lampert suggested some inmates spend significant time waiting to move from jail to prison. After 10 days in jail, an inmate becomes the charge of WDOC — if the agency doesn’t transfer the person to a prison, it must begin paying the county jail rent. Still, some inmates wait “90 days or longer,” for their transfer to a prison facility, Lampert told lawmakers.

During that time they’re not earning good time, while those sentenced and transferred to prison within a few days of trial could be working at reducing their prison sentence by conducting themselves well behind bars. 

“The question is is that fair?” Lampert said. 

In an email to WyoFile, however, Lindly said the department was reducing the length of time inmates spend sitting in jail after sentencing. The department has been moving inmates out of prisons by contracting with county jails and with a private prison in Mississippi.

(Inmates who have been admitted to a prison and then returned to a county jail through a WDOC contract can earn good time, though they do not retain access to the level of services available in prison.)

“I’m confident the time between sentencing and pick-up by WDOC has continued to go down in length or to lessen,” Lindly wrote to WyoFile on Monday. In 2018, the department had “limited space,” he said.  “I’m told it is now rare to go beyond 10 days,” in jail after sentencing, he wrote.

The Joint Judiciary Committee is expected to vote whether to sponsor the jail good time bill at a future meeting before the 2019 budget session. Committee meetings are scheduled through the summer and fall.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.