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Criminal justice

Death penalty repeal supporter sees chance for bill in 2020

in Criminal justice/News
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By Cowboy State Daily

A measure aimed at repealing Wyoming’s death penalty may stand a better chance of winning approval in the Legislature’s 2020 session than it has in the past, according to a supporter.

Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, said as people have become more aware of the problems associated with the death penalty, they have been more prone to discuss it with their legislators.

“The community is much more aware of what’s going on and they’re much more involved,” he said. “So I think with that involvement and more personal conversations with our senators to make them understand particularly the fiscal consequences of not repealing the death penalty, I think we have a better shot of getting it all the way through this time.”

Olsen proposed a measure during the Legislature’s general session earlier this year that would have abolished the death penalty and replaced it with a maximum penalty of life in prison.

The bill was approved in the House on a vote of 36-21, but was defeated in the Senate, where it received only 12 “yes” votes from the state’s 30 senators.

The 2020 session is a budget session, which means all bills not related to the budget need to win a two-third majority vote to even be considered by the Legislature.

Olsen’s main argument in opposition to the death penalty has been the expense involved in the prosecution and unavoidable appeals that accompany a death penalty case.

In addition, he said, the Legislature needs to consider what may happen if an innocent person is condemned to death.

“If we got it wrong and executed the individual, there is no way to undo that,” he said.

Opponents of Olsen’s bill argued during this year’s session that the death penalty provides justice for the victims of murder. Prosecutors argued that its elimination would take away a valuable plea bargaining tool.

Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said he believes the death penalty may actually be more humane than life in prison.

“Caging someone up like an animal for some years of their lives just doesn’t make much sense,” he said. “Our whole world is based on contributing to society in some fashion. And locking somebody up forever just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Controversial hiring freeze for Cheyenne scrapped

in Criminal justice/Economic development/News
Downtown Development Authority
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By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

CHEYENNE – A controversial proposal to enact a temporary hiring freeze in the city’s $56 million budget for Fiscal Year 2020 was eliminated upon third and final reading before the Cheyenne City Council’s Committee of the Whole on Wednesday evening.

The hiring freeze, which had been proposed by Councilman Dicky Shanor as part of a larger amendment that was approved unanimously the previous week, sparked criticism on social media from Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak. Kozak contended that a hiring freeze would leave CPD understaffed by more than two dozen officers, which would in turn require CPD to suspend previously scheduled training and reassign the public information officer and half of the department’s school resources officers to the patrol division in order to maintain general public safety.

Shanor said in interviews he was concerned with “the politicization of law enforcement” he felt was evidenced by Kozak’s statement, which singled out Shanor by name. That prompted Mayor Marian Orr to defend the chief, characterizing his statements as advocacy for the public’s right to know how a hiring freeze could impact their safety.

Despite the rancor, however, Wednesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting – the nine councilmen minus the mayor – was relatively quick and quiet, as was the decision to scrap the hiring freeze altogether via an amendment. Even so, Council President Rocky Case noted early on that the large public turnout he and other council members expected as a result of the hiring freeze debate had not materialized. Only two members of the public chose to speak, including Stephanie Lowe, president of the Cheyenne Public Employees Association, who asked the committee to reconsider its recommendation to cap the total number of city employees for fiscal year 2020 at 578.1 positions, and instead give department directors the leeway to hire as needed, provided they have the budget and data to support each position.

“Staff have created a great plan for the city and I’m concerned about crippling departments that may prevent important work from getting done,” Lowe said. “Let’s not all forget the growing size of our community, which needs a growing workforce to keep up with maintenance at the least, but also to keep attracting new businesses and residents to work here.”

But with the hiring freeze lifted, committee members opted to leave the employee cap in place. Instead, a portion of the funds that would have been saved by the hiring freeze will instead be made up through $100,000 in reversions – budgeted funds that go unspent and return to city reserves – anticipated  at the end of FY 2019.

Committee members also heard from local physician Dr. Jasper “J.J.” Chen, who argued against cutting funds from the Cheyenne Downtown Development Authority, suggesting that the city instead define clear outcomes it wants to see from the DDA, then track its progress to determine future funding.

“We should do this instead of making the more dramatic and drastic decisions to take away a substantial portion of the DDA’s funding without empirical data justifying doing so,” Chen said. 

Mayor Orr’s initial budget proposal allocated just $100,000 for the DDA, down from $390,000 this year and $450,499 the previous fiscal year. But once amendment markups were concluded Wednesday, the DDA was ultimately budgeted for $290,000 for FY 2020, while the Cheyenne Animal Shelter will receive an additional $107,500, for a total budget of $612,500.

Committee members also rejected an amendment proposed by Ward III Councilman Ken Esquibel that would have cut Cheyenne’s $50,000 annual membership in the Wyoming Association of Municipalities. Esquibel argued that, with a citizen legislature only in session a maximum of 60 days in a year, WAM’s lobbying efforts were costing Cheyenne $1,666 per day, even as local legislators generally vote in the city’s interests. 

“We’re basically throwing $50,000 into the wind,” he said. 

Committee member Mark Rinne pointed out that Mayor Orr is going to be on the Resolutions Committee for WAM this year, and that the organization recently gained a new director in J. David Fraser.

He added that council members had previously discussed the need to participate in more WAM events, and Esquibel’s amendment ultimately failed, with Esquibel himself the only affirmative vote.

With Wednesday’s amendments thus dispensed with, the latest incarnation of the city’s FY 2020 budget will come before the full City Council for final approval at 6 p.m. Monday, June 10.

Wyoming Corrections: Accommodating faith in prison challenging, essential

in Criminal justice/Government spending/News
The WDOC accommodates at least 25 religions throughout the prison system, and Christianity is the most popular,.
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Adequately and safely meeting the constitutionally guaranteed religious rights of the state’s inmates can be challenging, according to a spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Corrections.

“Inmates arguably have more religious protections than (the average citizen) to be frank,” WDOC Compliance Manager C.J. Young said. “This is probably one of the tougher areas for the justice system around the country.”

In addition to First Amendment protections for freedom of religion, inmates are also covered by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“If an inmate has a sincerely held belief, (RLUIPA)  shifts the burden on to (WDOC) to justify why we can’t accommodate that,” Young explained. “We have to accommodate that belief unless it’s completely outrageous like requesting to carry around an axe.”

The WDOC is not only charged with accommodating the inmate’s beliefs, but accommodating them in the least restrictive manner possible, he said.

“An inmate requested to wear a certain type of religious item he wouldn’t normally be allowed to wear,” Young said. “We did some research with nearby facilities, and we found there hadn’t really been any problems. So we allowed it, but with the minor exception he could only wear the item in the chapel.”

Items of belief

Religious items in the correctional system fall into two categories: personal property, which is owned by the inmates, and group property, which is owned by WDOC.

“When it comes to personal property, we have a matrix of religious property that inmates can possess,” Young said. “That list can vary depending on the facility. At the Wyoming Honor Farm, inmates work with tools daily, so having a metal crucifix might not be a big deal, but in maximum security at the State Penitentiary … we’re probably not going to give (the inmate) metal, so we might find a plastic or paper crucifix they can wear.”

Inmates can acquire personal religious items through the WDOC commissary or through WDOC-approved donations from religious groups.

According to Wyoming’s checkbook provided to the public in January by Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines, the WDOC spent about $2,600 in 2018 with Al Hannah, an Islamic clothing provider. In 2017, the WDOC spent about $2,200 with same company, and in 2016, the agency spent about $2,400 with Al Hannah.

WDOC Public Information Officer Mark Horan said the purchases were to stock the commissary with “halal shampoo, lotion and soap products,” products prepared according to Muslim practices.Because the commissary is operated as an enterprise fund, a self-supporting fund that provides goods or services to the public for a fee, Young said the personal items purchased through it are not paid for with tax dollars.

“What the (commissary) makes, they then use to purchase items to sell to inmates,” he said. 

The only commissary expense that is funded through the WDOC general fund is staff salaries, Young added.

The store can mark up the price of some items to turn a profit, but Horan said religious items cannot be marked up.

Group items, on the other hand, are not owned by the prisoners, nor can they be purchased by the prisoners.

Group items are available to inmates at predetermined times, such as religious services, and typically, under the supervision of a chaplain.

“Take Asatru (a Norse-pantheon religion) for instance, they can have a drinking horn in group property,” Young explained. “But, they can’t have that property in their cells.”

Religious Privileges

The WDOC accommodates at least 25 religions throughout the prison system, and Christianity is the most popular, Young said.

“The department doesn’t tell anybody that you can’t believe in a god or religious practice,” he said. “What we do is recognize certain faith groups that are prevalent enough and don’t pose any risks that we allow them to have privileges inside our facilities.”

Islam, Wicca, Satanism, Judaism and Asatru are among the recognized religions, and recently, Young said the WDOC added humanitarianism to the list, which is regularly reviewed and updated.

“We try to be flexible,” he said. “When inmates come in, if there’s a new practice or a new faith group, we try to give everything a fair shot.”

If an inmate wants the WDOC to recognize a new belief system or religious practice, Young said they can follow a paperwork process lining out their request. The WDOC reviews the form and either grants or denies the request.

A denial can be appealed, Young said.

‘An opportunity to reset’

Accommodating faiths and belief systems can be difficult in a rural state with limited religious support networks, Young said.

“The only rabbis in Wyoming are in Jackson and Cheyenne, and we don’t have a facility in either of those,” he explained. “When it comes to some of the earth-based religions like Asatru or Wicca, we’re looking at trying to find someone in Denver or on the East Coast that’s any type of professional in their field.”

Because of this, WDOC relies heavily on religious volunteers, who can offer services and guidance to inmates.

Beyond constitutional requirements, access to religion is an important part of the prison system, he said.

“The public and even us in corrections, we can have a tendency to be jaded,” Young said. “There is an old joke that God lives in maximum security prisons, or at least, that’s where everyone finds him. Or, ‘You should thought about being religious before you committed the crime.’”

On the path to reconciliation and rehabilitation, however, faith is one of the few tools available to inmates.

“When you’re in prison, there’s only three things you get: food, a very small amount of property, and religion,” Young said. “For many, faith is opportunity to reset their lives or mindsets.”

To learn more about volunteering for WDOC religious programming or donating religious items to inmate’s religious groups, call the WDOC at 307-777-7208.

Governor signs public records, animal cruelty bill

in Criminal justice/Education/Energy/News/Transparency
Wyoming Legislature bills signed by Governor Gordon
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By Cowboy State Daily

Bills creating a felony crime of animal abuse and setting a deadline for the production of public records were among a group signed into law on Friday by Gov. Mark Gordon.

HB 235, one of the last bills to be approved by the Legislature in the closing hours of its general session, makes it a felony for a person to commit aggravated cruelty to animals resulting in the death or euthanasia of an animal or to abuse an animal with an intent to kill it.

The law takes effect July 1. Currently, a person convicted of animal abuse can only be found guilty of a misdemeanor. A felony conviction carries a prison sentence of up to two years.

The public records law, SF 57, sets a 30-day deadline for the release of public documents. It also authorizes the hiring of an ombudsman to help mediate disputes over the release of public documents.

Under existing law, there was no time limit for government agencies to release public documents.

Other bills signed into law Friday included:

  • SF 159, designed to encourage utilities to sell old coal-fired electric plants rather than retire them;
  • HB 103, requiring doctors who perform abortions to report those procedures to the state Office of Vital Records and requiring the the data be compiled into a public report;
  • SF 122, creating the “Wyoming Works Program,” which will provide grants for students attending technical programs at community colleges, and 
  • HB 99, creating a state “Public Lands Day.”

Gordon has until late March to sign bills into law, veto them or allow them to become law without his signature.

Wyoming’s 65th Legislature: General Session Review

in Agriculture/Criminal justice/Education/Health care/News/Taxes
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It’s all over for this year. Check out our bitesized rundown of what passed and what failed in the 65th Wyoming Legislature’s General Session. Stay tuned this weekend for more analysis on the session highs and lows with our Robert Geha.

Thanks for watching and be sure to follow Cowboy State Daily for our expanded statewide coverage of Wyoming news coming to your feed in the days ahead.

In Brief: Felony penalty restored to animal cruelty bill

in Criminal justice/News
Wyoming animal cruelty penalties
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A last-minute compromise in Wyoming’s Legislature this week restored a felony penalty to the state’s animal cruelty laws.

HB 235, as it goes to the governor’s desk, would make it a felony to abuse an animal with the intent of killing it or to engage in “aggravated cruelty” that results in an animal’s death. The bill had originally made repeated offenses of the state’s animal cruelty laws a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. However, the Senate removed all the language regarding the enhanced penalty and the House rejected the changes.

A compromise was reached late on Wednesday, the Legislature’s final day of its general session, restoring the felony penalty of up to two years in prison.

In Brief: Animal cruelty compromise reached, no felony for repeat offenders

in Criminal justice/News
Alt = Wyoming animal cruelty bill reaches compromise
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By Cowboy State Daily

A compromise was reached Wednesday on a bill that was originally intended to create a felony penalty for animal cruelty. However, the bill no longer contains any language regarding the enhanced penalty for repeat offenders of animal cruelty laws.

HB 235 originally would have made anyone convicted of animal abuse more than once guilty of a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. The Senate removed all of the language pertaining to the enhanced penalty and the House rejected the changes to its bills.

The compromise approved by the House on Wednesday still leaves the felony language out of the bill. However, as it stands, the bill would allow a judge to bar a person from seeing or caring for a pet if that person had been convicted in a domestic abuse case.

If the Senate approves the changes, the bill will head to the desk of Gov. Mark Gordon for his signature.

In Brief: House rejects significant changes to animal cruelty bill

in Criminal justice/News
Wyoming animal cruelty penalties
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By Cowboy State Daily

Significant Senate changes to a bill originally designed to create a felony crime of animal cruelty were rejected Monday by representatives.

Members of the House on Monday voted not to adopt the Senate changes to HB 235 and instead to create a “joint conference committee” to meet with senators to address the differences in the two versions of the bill.

As approved by the House, the bill would have made repeated violations of animal cruelty laws a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. The Senate removed all language pertaining to the felony crime, leaving intact only a section that would let judges bar people from having contact with pets if they are convicted of a domestic abuse charge.

The three-member joint conference committees from both the House and Senate will be charged with reaching a compromise on the bill. If no compromise can be reached, the bill will die.

Income tax, party switching dead, lodging tax alive

in Criminal justice/News/Taxes
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By Cowboy State Daily

The last of three bills that would have put restrictions on when voters can change party affiliations was among a number to die this week as the Legislature neared the end of its general session.

Legislators looking to wrap up their general session by Wednesday put in long hour this week finishing their work on a number of bills, eliminating several controversial measures.

HB 106 was the last of three bills that would have set time limits for people to change party affiliation. It would have set a deadline of May 1 for such changes. It was defeated in a 14-11 vote in its first Senate review.

Another bill killed would have imposed an income tax on large retail companies headquartered outside of Wyoming. HB 220 died without getting a review in a Senate committee.

Moving ahead, however, was a bill that would set a statewide lodging tax of 5 percent. HB 66 is set for a final vote in the Senate on Monday.

Approved with significant changes by the Senate was a bill originally designed to create a felony crime for animal abuse. HB 235 was amended to remove all language about the felony crime.

Animal abuse measure amended to remove felony language

in Criminal justice/News
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By Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would have made it a felony to repeatedly abuse animals is heading for a Senate review, but without the felony penalty language.

The Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday approved HB 235, but removed all language strengthening the penalty for animal abuse.

As originally worded, anyone convicted more than once on a charge of cruelty to animals could have been charged with a felony and sentenced to up to two years in prison. Currently, animal abuse is a misdemeanor.

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, proposed the amendment stripping the felony language out of the bill. She said as written, the language did not specifically define what an animal is and she feared it would not be approved by the Senate.

Steinmetz said if enforced, existing laws would be sufficient to address the problem of animal cruelty.

“There are a lot of penalties and statutes on the books that deal with that,” she said. “I think that they’re probably not being enforced as much as folks would like to see.”

The bill still contains language that would let a judge bar a person convicted in a domestic abuse case from owning or caring for an animal.

The bill is on the list of measures to be considered in the Senate’s “Committee of the Whole.”

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