Albany County officials and attorneys are divided on a criminal justice reform bill that would provide alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders.

Under House Bill 94, if a defendant has not previously been convicted of a felony, a judge can choose to halt criminal proceedings and impose a period of probation — three years for a misdemeanor charge or five years for a felony charge. This section of the bill would not apply to defendants charged with felonies such as murder, aggravated assault or first- or second-degree sexual assault.

If the defendant violates probation, the court would have the discretion to impose a sentence, order a trial for the original charge or continue with the probation, potentially with amended requirements, such as abiding by a curfew or completing a rehabilitative program.

After successful completion of probation, the original charge would be dismissed.

The bill would also allow for more opportunities for “good time” — time that can be deducted from a sentence due to good behavior — as well as administrative sanctions such as immediate confinement in a county jail or residential community correctional program placement.

“As it relates to Albany County, a lot of what I see that they have included in the state statute is codifying a lot of what (former District Court Judge Jeffrey Donnell) and our probation department have been doing,” said Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent. “So, for our purposes in Albany County, I don’t believe you’re going to see a dramatic change.”

She suggested some portions of the bill needed to be revisited, noting while the bill allocates nearly $1.79 million for substance abuse treatment, another section states the cost of the substance abuse assessment would be paid for by the defendant.

“It’s putting the onus on the defendant to pay for their substance abuse treatment,” she said. “And the issue that that presents is if they have insurance, and how they’re going to pay — and how, if they don’t, that’s going to be paid for.”

Trent also said the administrative sanctions could potentially create problems for defendants in terms of due process, or basic legal rights.

“We want to make sure that if we increase jail time — increase what they’re outlining in the legislation — that there is a hearing, that the defendant has an opportunity to be heard,” she said.

Candace Pisciotti, a partner at the Laramie-based Sanford & Pisciotti Law Offices, LLC, said she thought the bill was an “excellent” piece of legislation that would provide increased alternatives and options in sentencing. Prior to entering private practice, Pisciotti spent six years as a public defender in Albany County.

“What you normally will see at sentencing is people that need treatment, and that might be substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, both,” she said. “And so, to address that prong of that criminal behavior, I think, is the most important thing to reduce recidivism. Right now, there’s just not those opportunities.”

For instance, Pisciotti said, when a first-time felony offender or a non-violent drug offender is sentenced, subsequently relapses and ends up in prison, the underlying drug or mental health problems are not always addressed.

“That’s really the issue,” she said. “Not exactly a bent towards criminal behavior, but more towards an addiction and using. And to have a bill giving judges greater leeway to decide and have some different alternatives, I think, is excellent for the defense community.”

Vaughn Neubauer, a criminal defense attorney with the Laramie firm Neubauer, Pelkey and Goldfinger LLP, had a more critical response to the proposed legislation. While he said he found it encouraging parolees could earn good time for good behavior on the street, he thought the bill would provide probation officers with power and authority that could easily be abused.

“Any time you hand these things over to an agency, a very busy judge is going to rely upon the expertise of the agency, so some out of control probation officer is going to be tossing people in jail, sanctioning them for nothing, and then they’ll challenge that,” he said. “And they will have a huge burden to overcome, because the judge will be in the habit of relying upon the so-called expert.”

Neubauer also raised concerns about if the Legislature chooses not to fund treatment, the costs would be passed along to the defendants.

“This bill looks to me like people who want to arrive at a solution but have no idea how to get there,” he said. “And they just want to try something.”

Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley said it was a “reality” the state prison system has both non-violent offenders and offenders who are “not necessarily bad people — they made bad decisions.”

“This would be a statute that would kind of lend to dealing with those kinds of individuals that are not repeat offenders, and they’re non-violent offenders,” he said.

However, he expressed concerns about how incarceration in county jails would be funded. When a defendant completes a split sentence for a felony conviction, which involves time in the county jail followed by a period of probation, the Wyoming Department of Corrections reimburses counties for housing costs at a rate of $60 per day — a sum that can serve as an important source of revenue for poorer counties, such as Albany County, O’Malley said.

“I can certainly understand the motivation behind the bill, but it comes down to the fiscal issues for some of the counties, too, and I know that that’s a potential revenue stream,” he said.

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