CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming residents with a first-time, nonviolent felony conviction can see their voting rights restored upon completion of their sentence. Lawmakers are now considering expanding the restoration process to other rights, including owning or using a firearm, serving on a jury and holding public office.
Senate File 120 – Restoration of civil rights received the approval of its original chamber before the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to support the bill on Friday.
“This is a bill that’s actually been on my heart and on my mind for my entire tenure in the Wyoming Legislature,” bill sponsor Sen. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) told the committee. Barlow described the experience of years of door-to-door campaigning and encountering residents that had lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction. That initially inspired Barlow to sponsor a successful bill in 2017 to automate part of the voting rights restoration process. Barlow now wants to welcome individuals convicted of one-time, nonviolent felonies “fully back into society” by restoring additional rights.
The bill has bipartisan sponsorship and support but anti-domestic violence advocates have raised concerns about the potential consequences of returning gun rights to individuals with a criminal record.
“We fully support the importance of restoring civil rights to those who have done their time,” Tara Muir, the policy director for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, told the committee. “Restoring gun rights is an entirely different matter.”
The latest annual report from the Violence Policy Center, which ranked Wyoming as having the country’s third highest rate of females murdered by males, heightened Muir’s unease about the bill. Eighty-six percent of those fatalities involved a gun, and 100% of the victims were wives, common-law wives, ex-wives or girlfriends of the offender, according to the report.
Roughly 3,400 Wyoming residents have had their voting rights restored, according to the Department of Corrections. The restoration process is either automatic or requires an application, depending on a few factors. Those who have an out-of-state or federal conviction, or who completed their sentence prior to Jan. 1, 2010, must submit an application to WDOC. Restoration is otherwise automatic and normally takes 45 days.
Under SF 120 anyone who qualifies for voting rights restoration, would be qualified to regain other rights. Those who have been convicted of a violent felony, such as murder or manslaughter, are excluded as are those with multiple felony convictions.
“This [bill] builds off of that system,” Barlow said in committee. A five-year delay in restoring the additional rights is intended to discourage those who have been convicted from reoffending.
“The data is pretty clear,” WDOC Director Dan Shannon told lawmakers, speaking in favor of the bill. “When individuals’ rights are restored, they become better members of our community and recidivism rates clearly go down.”
The bill includes a $60,000 appropriation to cover the cost of an additional WDOC employee to deal with increased processing and paperwork if the bill becomes law.
Revoke to restore
Wyoming law annuls someone’s right to vote, serve on a jury or hold public office if convicted of a felony, while it’s federal law that prohibits those individuals from owning or using a gun. Because there’s no congruent state statute for the latter, the bill creates such a restriction — the idea being that the state cannot return a right that it has not revoked.
“If we don’t do that, we can’t directly restore [that right],” Barlow told WyoFile. If the bill passes, Barlow expects there to be considerably more interest in restoration than when it was limited to voting rights — and that could discourage recidivism to a greater degree.
“The Second Amendment, it’s obviously very important to many people out there that might say, ‘You know what, now it’s worth doing this. Now I can go hunting with my child with a firearm, or I can go back to the gun range with my friends, or I can have a firearm in my home for protection,’” Barlow said.
Federal law also prohibits those with a domestic violence misdemeanor or a protection order from using or possessing a firearm, but local law enforcement does not generally enforce that, Muir told lawmakers.
“There is no confiscating of weapons,” Muir told lawmakers. For victims, “knowing that he’s got that rifle in the back of his truck that no one will take, couldn’t be more scary. And without doing anything, we’re letting those victims still struggle with that.”
The original version of the bill included language to address that gap by creating a new criminal offense for those convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault or domestic battery who possess or use a firearm. The Senate, however, removed that language to simplify the bill.
“I’m very sensitive to that discussion. And tried to thread that needle but it was too big of a haystack,” Barlow said. “It was just a lot of complications in that and interests that had to be balanced. And that’s a longer term discussion than I could get my arms around for this particular bill.”
For that reason Muir suggested tabling the conversation about restoring gun rights till the interim legislative session. Ultimately lawmakers moved the bill forward without tackling convicted domestic abusers’ access to firearms. Rep. Ken Chestek (D-Laramie) offered to work with Muir to bring some additional amendments to the bill when it’s discussed on the House floor.
Because it has fiscal implications, the bill was re-referred to the House Appropriations Committee, which voted unanimously in support of the bill on Wednesday. It now goes to the full House for consideration.