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Judicial branch aims to further improve Wyoming treatment courts

Lawmakers Friday discussed the judiciary’s plans for making treatment courts more efficient, easier to access and open to more people.

Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate Fox. (Ana Castro/WyoFile) Credit: Ana Castro/WyoFile

by Madelyn Beck, WyoFile

Wyoming’s treatment courts could soon be in for big changes, including opening to more people. 

These courts are designed to help people with substance use disorders and other mental illnesses get treatment in lieu of jail or prison, theoretically delivering better outcomes for both the individual and taxpayers. 

In 2023, Gov. Mark Gordon signed Senate File 23-Treatment courts-transfer to judicial branch, allowing the judiciary to take over treatment courts in Wyoming. Such programs had previously operated under the wide-reaching Wyoming Department of Health.

As Rep. Art Washut (R-Casper) put it while chairing a House Judiciary Committee meeting, “The primary argument here is that without the treatment court judge, treatment courts pretty much don’t function.”

With the Wyoming Supreme Court now at the helm, there’s been a lot of work to bring stakeholders together and develop a plan to improve the treatment courts. And alongside that, the judiciary is asking for a few more statutory revisions to change the courts even more. 

The plan

Step one of stakeholders’ plans for treatment courts is to implement new standards. That is expected to happen July 1, according to State Court Administrator Elisa Butler, who spoke to the Legislature’s Joint Mental Health & Vulnerable Adult Task Force on Friday.

The Wyoming Supreme Court in September 2023 in Cheyenne. (Joshua Wolfson/WyoFile)

“Those treatment court standards would be based on national, evidence-based models, and would increase accountability, improve data collection and ensure fidelity to that evidence-based model,” she said. 

While there were standards before, Health Department Director Stefan Johansson said Friday, this is a comprehensive update.

After those new standards go into effect, the plan is to certify treatment courts and initiate a peer review process in which employees at one drug court visit other drug courts. Those are expected to happen over the next few years.

Next on the list is better data via a state data and case management system. 

“Data is fundamental to ensuring effective treatment court options,” slides from the judiciary state. 

Beyond that, the judiciary aims to maintain sufficient staffing and funding to maintain the treatment courts as they change and grow alongside the state population. 

A new request

A bill draft to change treatment courts also cropped up Friday. Among other things, it would authorize counties, nonprofits and tribal governments to form regional courts.

“What we find in some of our communities is that they are too rural for each county to have its own treatment court,” Butler said. 

As written, the bill would also allow those convicted in criminal courts to participate in treatment courts — a resource that’s not currently available to them. It also would allow judges to require juvenile offenders to participate in treatment court, enable treatment courts to accept people who were convicted in other areas of the state, and allow public defenders to officially join the treatment court process.

“What we find in some of our communities is that they are too rural for each county to have its own treatment court.” ELISA BUTLER, STATE COURT ADMINISTRATOR

While there were a few lengthy discussions about how to best lay out how the regional treatment courts would work, there was no significant pushback, and updated bill language is expected to be presented at the committee’s next meeting on June 13 in Kemmerer.

Also coming up

Task force members also discussed a pilot program in Campbell County that’s meant to help people with severe mental illnesses get treatment instead of incarceration. 

That program would theoretically intervene earlier in the criminal justice pipeline and utilizes treatment court staff who are already in place. However, there will need to be specialized treatment for those who’re allowed into the program, which include non-violent offenders with misdemeanors who have PTSD, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia or are schizoaffective.

Lawmakers expect more information on how that still-new pilot project is going at the task force’s August meeting in Gillette.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


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