By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Photo by Matthew Idler
A bill classifying methamphetamine use while pregnant as a felony crime narrowly passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday, winning approval on a 3-2 vote despite some vocal opposition.
House Bill 85 is now slated for review next week by the Wyoming Senate.
The bill would add meth use while pregnant to Wyoming’s child endangerment statutes, but it also would order judges to sentence first-time offenders to probation and treatment.
The sentencing requirement is “groundbreaking,” said bill sponsor Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, because such mandates for the judicial branch are not seen elsewhere in the law.
Oakley added the treatment-first requirement to her bill early this week after opponents argued the prospect of a felony charge would discourage women from getting prenatal care or drug treatment.
Among the bill’s most vocal opponents was Lauren McLane, a University of Wyoming law professor who expressed concern the stigma that accompanies a felony conviction.
McLane noted that she was not speaking for UW but for herself as a criminal justice reform advocate.
“What we’re going to do here is we’re still going to give the mother of the unborn child a felony conviction,” said McLane, “and that felony conviction will cause not just probation and treatment but will result in cyclical travesty” including employment and other difficulties.
Oakley maintained the bill allows for the deferral of an official conviction as prosecutors and judges deem appropriate.
In Wyoming, felony convictions can be deferred and ultimately dismissed pending completion of a probation program.
Committee member Sen. Ed Cooper, R-Ten Sleep, added he believes people who commit felonies should have felony convictions.
“Harsher penalties (under this bill) kick in for subsequent offenses – as they should,” said Cooper, who voted for the bill. “The thought of a felony following a person through life: yeah, that’s the consequence of committing a felony.”
Korin Schmidt, director of the Wyoming Department of Family Services, told the committee that her department received 115 reports last year of newborns testing positive for drugs immmediately after birth. Of those cases, 37 resulted in the child being taken into protective custody, she said.
The bill was sent on to the Senate floor despite the opposition of committee Chair Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, who said more time was needed to properly craft the bill. She also said the Legislature’s refusal to adopt similar bills four times in the past was “telling.”
“This law is not on the books and I think that’s a telling piece for Wyoming’s history,” she said, “which is certainly in favor of protecting children and (is) tough on crime.”
Nethercott said she would like to gather more data on drug-exposed babies in Wyoming and to contemplate “some smarter solutions to addressing that gap” in the law.