CHEYENNE – After being booked into the Laramie County jail for her second DUI offense, Laura wasn’t sure where to turn.

“At that point, it was just like, ‘I don’t know what to do anymore,’” said Laura. “I don’t know how to get help, I don’t know how to stop, but I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t want to be in trouble. I don’t want to be in jail.”

Then, last year, she was referred by a judge to the county’s DUI court program, one of a few initiatives that offers an alternative to time behind bars for those dealing with substance abuse issues. Before that referral, Laura, a lifetime Cheyenne resident who was granted confidentiality by the WTE due to personal conflicts, had never gotten to attend counseling due to its high costs.

Soon after her referral, at a monthly cost of just $50, Laura was receiving weekly counseling and drug tests, followed by an intensive outpatient program that she attended three times a week. At the end of this summer, Laura completed the entire DUI court program, which she credits for getting her life back on track.

“Basically, if it wasn’t for DUI court, I’d probably still be drinking if I wasn’t in jail or worse situations,” Laura said. “I would either be in jail to finish out my sentence, which was two years, or I could potentially have been dead from the effects of drinking, because I was dealing with a lot of health issues, like with my pancreatitis.”

Since wrapping up her time in treatment court, Laura has enrolled in virtual classes at Casper College, where she is focusing on addiction studies.

“When it comes to anybody who’s in DUI court and stuff like that, the staff is super supportive and understanding,” she said. “So I’m basically going to go to school so that I can continue helping people, because I know that was another thing that completely helped me was having people who supported me, but didn’t judge me.”

But in the near future, Wyomingites like Laura may not have access to DUI courts, or their counterpart drug court programs. With the state already forced to cut about 10% from its 2021-22 biennium budget, and another round of cuts looming, the treatment court programs are among several components of Wyoming’s judicial system likely to be hampered by the reductions.

District attorneys brace for cuts

With Wyoming facing a projected $1.5 billion revenue shortfall over the next two years, nearly every state agency had its budget cut by about 10% this summer.

The cuts to the district attorneys’ offices in Laramie and Natrona counties, however, were not quite as large as for other agencies. In the initial round of reductions, the Laramie County DA’s office saw a 6% cut, while the office in Natrona County had a 7% cut. A full 10% cut would have resulted in both offices losing an attorney and seeing a more drastic reduction in services, according to a spokesman for Gov. Mark Gordon.

The two DA offices take on about two-thirds of the state’s criminal cases, while county attorneys statewide take on the remaining third. But with their staff already facing heavy caseloads prior to the cuts, the district attorneys will no longer be able to prosecute some misdemeanor and juvenile cases.

In total, 18 misdemeanors will no longer be handled in Natrona County DA Dan Itzen’s office due to the cuts.

“They include breach of peace, driving under suspension, criminal injury, assault and batteries, first-time DUIs, joyriding, interference with law enforcement, defrauding an innkeeper, first-time possession of a controlled substance, receiving and concealing stolen property, shoplifting, property destruction, telephone violations, leaving the scene and check fraud,” Itzen said in a recent interview.

“Frankly, safety is at risk with these budget cuts,” he continued. “A misdemeanor theft case is as important to the victim as any felony case, and those potentially will go unprosecuted, so … they’re kind of on their own with any civil remedies to get those back.”

The cuts come as both Itzen’s office and the Laramie County District Attorney’s office have seen major increases in their caseloads over the last quarter-century. For example, in 1995, the Laramie County DA’s office prosecuted a total of nearly 750 cases. By last year, that number had ballooned to roughly 5,200 cases.

{span style=”background-color: #ffffff;”}Laramie County DA Leigh Anne Manlove noted the number of district judges has grown from two to four over that same time span, while staffing for the DA’s office has remained the same.{/span}

“You can’t continue to take on more and more and more without additional resources and produce the same product,” Manlove said in a recent interview. “So for my office, when we have furloughs that are the equivalent of one-and-a-half positions, and we lose the legal assistant position ... unfortunately, it’s forcing us to prioritize, and where victims end up in all of that causes me grave concern.”

The cuts will also impact the ability of people like Laura to stay out of jail and prison. State law requires a prosecutor to be involved in the DUI and drug court treatment programs, but the mounting caseloads in both DA’s offices will leave prosecuting attorneys unable to participate.

“(Treatment courts) are a part of our job that really is not essential when you think about – do I prioritize a child sexual abuse case ... or a treatment court?” Manlove said. “When we have to prioritize what we can allocate our resources to as a prosecutor’s office, even though we know treatment courts are fantastic, and they work great, if we don’t participate, then maybe we don’t have them.”

The numbers in Laramie County prove the success of treatment courts. In 2016, a county-level report found 65.2% of drug court graduates and 72.7% of DUI court graduates had not been arrested for new crimes in the past three years.

Kurt Zunker, who directs the programs in Laramie County, said that rate has grown even higher, to about 80%, over the past few years.

“Treatment court programs are one of the most successful probation-type programs that have ever been utilized in the American criminal justice system,” Zunker told the WTE.

Zunker said his team is looking for “a path forward” to adapt to the cuts. The state’s treatment courts are largely funded through grants from the Wyoming Department of Health, and while Zunker was not yet sure of how much those grants would be reduced, he was certain of the effects.

“What it does is it reduces our ability to serve the population that already exists within our community,” said Zunker. “And it’s not like that population then moves on to other locations. They stay here ... so all it does is just pushes that population to other places, and where it generally pushes them is into emergency care services, or they end up in the detention center, at the jail.”

Laura, who wrapped up her time in the DUI court after 13 months, said she couldn’t bear the thought of the programs going away, given how much they help people.

“It’s super frustrating, because I don’t think I could have stopped my addiction without it,” said Laura. “Everybody talks pretty negatively on people with addictions, especially if they don’t understand it, so just think of how many more addicts are going to be out there and how much worse that could be for our community.”

The cuts’ “silent impacts” on children

Beyond the effects on misdemeanor cases, the budget cuts will also disrupt the judicial process for a uniquely vulnerable population: children. Among other cases that the DA’s offices will no longer be able to handle are ones for children in need of supervision.

Those “CHINS” cases typically involve teenagers who have run away from home or picked up an excessive number of unexcused absences in school.

Lynn Storey-Huylar directs Safe Harbor, a child advocacy center in downtown Cheyenne that often handles CHINS cases from the Wyoming Department of Family Services. She said the cuts will leave her team without one of its best tools to gauge children’s underlying issues.

“Now that we don’t have the ability to possibly file CHINS, I think kids are gonna fall through the cracks,” said Storey-Huylar. “Some of those teenagers, those older kids, are going to have some pretty significant issues, and we’re not going to be able to intervene or see them.”

In Laramie County, the DA’s office will also be unable to handle educational neglect cases, which arise when parents aren’t getting their children, typically in elementary school, to class consistently. Like with CHINS, educational neglect cases prove useful for child advocates to determine what is happening inside a home.

“If a parent is struggling to get their kids to school, what are the reasons?” said Storey-Huylar. “If you are harming a child, if you are abusing a child, you’re less likely to want the kid to go to school. ... And we know, statistically, that schools are where kids disclose abuse.”

In Natrona County, a popular student court program that aims to keep minors out of the criminal justice system will also likely cease to exist, according to Itzen.

“We have a number of specialty courts – like a drug court, a student court – that are pretty successful,” Itzen said. “We’re going to have to pull out of those, because we simply won’t have the manpower to keep those running.”

Itzen added graduation rates have risen every year since the student court program began in Natrona County.

“It holds them accountable for their actions, but it also has immediate and swift consequences, and the kids respond to that program extremely well,” Itzen said. “If we can save kids from being in the criminal justice system, we’re (saving) money down the road, and we’re going to lose that ability.”

Though no such student court program exists in Laramie County, the cuts’ effects will be severe nonetheless, according to Storey-Huylar, who also serves as a board member for Laramie County School District 1.

“If you don’t have tools in your toolbox to be able to help the most vulnerable of our population, which are kids, if you don’t have tools, if your hands are tied, if money is taken away, then we don’t have the ability to intervene,” Storey-Huylar said. “So there’s no magic solution here.”

“Children are going to be the silent impact of this, because a little 2-year-old who’s living in a home where there is drugs and alcohol that are prolific can’t advocate for themselves,” she continued. “And if the system can’t file on that parent to help them get help, then the child is going to be left in that home, unprotected and silently impacted.”

More cuts in the near future

The initial round of cuts completed this summer has already strained the district attorneys’ offices. But with Gov. Mark Gordon planning to unveil another phase of reductions sometime this fall, attorneys will probably be laid off in the next round of cuts, according to Manlove and Itzen.

“Even though it may not sound like very much, 5%, 10%, 20%, when you’re a really small entity, like my office, and your workload is such that we were at the tipping point already, we didn’t have anything else to cut,” Manlove said. “There was nothing else that we could not do that was extra.”

Itzen said his office will lose another two to three employees from the next round of cuts. “What that means is we won’t be able to prosecute as many cases,” Itzen said. “We prosecute about 3,500 cases a year, and we just can’t keep that number up. There’ll be crimes that go unprosecuted, victims that go unserved.”

Along with a lack of prosecutors able to participate, the state’s treatment courts will also face separate funding challenges through the cuts. Zunker said the first round of cuts hasn’t dismantled the Laramie County treatment programs.

“But if there’s additional cuts that may be coming later this fall or into this winter, that’s going to have some drastic effects on the operations of our programs here in Laramie County,” Zunker said.

Beyond that, several officials questioned whether the cuts to the court system would really translate to long-term savings. For example, the 2016 report on Laramie County’s treatment programs found the drop in arrests experienced by drug court graduates saved taxpayers more than $33,000 in estimated jail expenses, while the reduction in arrests experienced by DUI court graduates was projected to have saved taxpayers more than $78,000 in jail costs.

“With the budget cuts, I understand where the governor’s at on that, but at the end of the day, they’re not really helpful to anything,” said Zunker. “It just kicks the can down the road.”

The governor, of course, has a constitutional mandate to produce a balanced budget, and without the revenue to fund programs like Zunker’s, he has little choice but to cut some initiatives. Michael Pearlman, a spokesman for the governor, said Gordon will discuss his supplemental budget during a Joint Appropriations Committee meeting Oct. 26.

“Right now, all agencies are looking at further cuts because the budget deficit is so severe, and the governor must propose a balanced budget to the Legislature in November,” Pearlman said in a written response to questions. “So the policy implications of cuts will soon be with the Legislature, which has the responsibility to get involved in these complex and challenging decisions.”

Indeed, some solutions could emerge during the Wyoming Legislature’s general session, set to begin in January, as lawmakers will ultimately have to determine their funding priorities due to the scale of the revenue shortfall.

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, who co-chairs the Joint Judiciary Committee, said most Wyomingites, including legislators, don’t have much exposure to the state’s criminal justice system, creating somewhat of a disconnect on court-related issues.

“Whereas all of the Legislature is aware that every state agency is being cut and there are consequences all around ... I don’t know that the court system is rising above some of the others that we’re hearing about,” said Nethercott.

There are aspects of the judicial system that Nethercott hoped she and her colleagues could look at next session. She mentioned the state requirement for prosecutors to be involved in DUI and drug courts as an example of something that could potentially be tweaked “to accomplish the same goal with less resources.”

“I do think there might be smarter ways, as a result of some of these budgets cuts, that we can still effectively administer these important programs,” Nethercott said.

Though the initial round of cuts has been run through the executive branch, lawmakers will soon have a more hands-on role with the release of Gordon’s supplemental budget next month.

“As we continue to review the cuts that we’re doing, we’re going to have to really understand, beyond the 10%, what that loss means, and what the community and the state can actually bear,” Nethercott said. “Is the non-prosecution of some criminal misdemeanors acceptable to society, or do they want to prioritize that over something else?”

Given the scale of the revenue shortfall facing Wyoming, Itzen was not optimistic about the chances of funding being restored to his office in the near future.

“I think it’s a pipe dream, frankly, to talk about your budget getting restored anytime soon,” he said. “I hope they look at these smaller agencies and what we give to our citizens across the state and realize that it’s not worth cutting our budgets for what the state gets from us.”

Manlove, likewise, said the cuts tie directly to how residents view their communities. Her hope is that the public and policymakers can have discussions on the impacts before it’s too late.

“I just believe that there are consequences when there is no accountability,” Manlove said. “And when you see it manifesting, when it’s at that point, gosh, how do you put the genie back in the bottle?”

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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