- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2016

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming’s increasing incarceration rate is driving up prison costs at a time when the state is coping with a budget shortfall.

Many prisoners are there for nonviolent crimes that include drunken driving, drug possession, shoplifting or burglary.

Options include reforming criminal sentencing laws or spending nearly $20 million to update and expand prisons.

According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Wyoming’s imprisonment rate grew faster than all but four other states between 2009 and 2014.

Linda Burt, the former director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Wyoming, said it was politically popular to “get tough on crime” at the time, and lawmakers put more crimes on the books and proposed longer sentences for already existing crimes. “We’re putting people in jail that we’re mad at, not people we need to be safe from,” Burt said.

Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen said prison inmates tend to be violent and repeat offenders who have been given multiple chances on probation. “Our crime rate is down because repeat and violent offenders are locked up and they receive treatment in the facilities,” Blonigen said.

Wyoming Department of Corrections officials are seeking $13.5 million to add 144 new beds to the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington and to update the facility. Officials said it would cost an additional $5 million a year to keep it open, the Casper Star-Tribune reported (http://tinyurl.com/zczdpvu ).

Department Director Bob Lampert said the state wouldn’t have to spend the money if it changes the way offenders are sentenced. The department has recommended more residential drug-rehabilitation programs outside of prison, giving more first-time nonviolent offenders probation instead of time behind bars and offering inmates incentives to be released early on good behavior.

Rep. Charles Pelkey, a Democrat from Laramie, said he would oppose further funding for prisons until the legislature addresses sentence reform, and lawmakers have not approved the additional funding.

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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