Hundreds of bills are up for consideration in the Wyoming Legislature’s pandemic-shortened in-person session this year.
The mountain of bills legislators will debate is overwhelming. But what’s even more daunting is how to manage the state’s budget shortfall brought on by a sharp downturn in oil markets and the COVID-19 public health crisis. Revenue is down, and there aren’t many ways to cut the fat.
This budget shortfall is particularly concerning when it comes to the Public Defender’s Office.
For the past several years, our state has been unable to adequately fund the State Public Defender’s Office. Because of this, criminal defendants are potentially being denied their constitutional right to a zealous defense, and public defenders are carrying excessive workloads that make it impossible for them to meaningfully represent each and every client. Ethical caseloads are necessary to preserve the integrity of the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the rights of criminal defendants, including their right to an attorney. Issues concerning representation like this have gone all the way to the Wyoming Supreme Court.
Fortunately, there is a common-sense solution readily available.
Until now, the Public Defender’s Office has spent significant resources on providing constitutionally required defense in death penalty cases. Even the most conservative estimates (which do not account for training, attorney time and other costs) show that between $1 million to $2 million is spent every biennium on the death penalty – even when no individuals are on death row. What do those dollars go toward? There’s very little to show for it – except for the millions of Wyoming taxpayer dollars wasted on both a state and a local level on an unequally applied, ineffective death penalty that serves no common definition of justice.
Without the death penalty on the books in Wyoming, that money could immediately be re-appropriated within the Public Defender’s Office to provide for competitive salaries, proper staffing and other immediate needs with the office itself.
While the current budget reflects this and has been approved by Gov. Mark Gordon, the moratorium on the death penalty is only temporary. Permanently repealing the death penalty is an action that legislators must take by passing Senate File 150.
If just one death penalty care is brought in Wyoming, it would tap the resources of the Public Defender’s Office. Two or more cases could cause additional crises for both county and state budgets. The money saved by repealing the death penalty in Wyoming and not trying capital cases would help solve the budget shortfall that is contributing to inadequate indigent defense.
The time to repeal the death penalty in Wyoming is now.
A version of this column also appeared in the Casper Star-Tribune.