UW Criminal Justice Lecturer Talks Crime Wave, Future Book
Advocates education and vocational training to reduce offender recidivism
- Published In: Columns
- Last Updated: Aug 05, 2022
By Kristi Eaton
Special to the Wyoming Truth
At 50, Daniel Fetsco views the criminal justice system through a unique lens. Fresh out of the University of Denver Law School, he served as a public defender and prosecutor in Carbon County before joining the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office. From there, Fetsco spent 10 years as the Deputy and Executive Director of the Wyoming Parole Board, where he participated in 10,000 parole hearings.
And, as he notes, he’s also the son of a convicted felon.
In 1967, Peter Fetsco served 10 months in prison for allegedly failing to pay child support to his then-wife. The elder Fetsco maintained that he was in Vietnam at the time and could not have fathered the children. After his release from prison, Peter became an award-winning journalist in Wyoming.
Of his late father’s incarceration, Fetsco says this: “… it does explain me somewhat, who I am and why I think I have an insight into the systems others may not.”
Today, Fetsco leverages that insight as a lecturer in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Criminal Justice. He is currently writing a book that will examine second chances for people serving life sentences and his father’s case.
The Wyoming Truth caught up with Fetsco to discuss his career, second chance legislation and criminal justice reform. What follows are excerpts from the interview.
Which role did you prefer: public defender or prosecutor?
Fetsco: I preferred the role of the prosecutor, because of the power to truly seek justice and help victims…. Sometimes that means offering second chances or dismissing cases where the evidence is lacking. It was stressful, because I am a fairly forgiving person, and I was inclined to plea bargain cases more than some law enforcement members wanted.
What was your most memorable case?
Fetsco: … a prosecution involving a guy named Tim Moore. This case was unique for me, because I not only tried the case, but I also argued the appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court. Then I actually saw this guy again at the parole board, when he got his parole revoked. … With the trial, I got convictions on kidnapping and blackmail, in addition to a few other charges. From this case, I learned that the legal elements for crimes like kidnapping and blackmail are not what we might think—and not as difficult to prove as I thought. …. It just so happened that after Moore was convicted by the jury, I soon left to take the job doing appellate prosecution at the AG’s in Cheyenne, and I was assigned Moore’s appeal. . . . I basically had to talk about myself in the third person, referring to the “trial prosecutor” who was actually me. This case also was a reminder … of how long someone can stay in the system after conviction.
In researching your father’s incarceration, what surprised you?
Fetsco: Looking through his [discharge] paperwork…, some things that jump out at me: …the old timey language. The first page reads: convict discharged. The word “convict” is now considered degrading. . .
The fourth page of the discharge paperwork is the descriptive stuff. Of note, his occupation is “Nothing Special.” At the bottom, it indicates no past criminal history. So how did he end up in prison for that crime with zero record?
I wouldn’t say he was wrongfully convicted, but he was sent to prison for allegedly committing a crime that is no longer punishable by imprisonment as a felony. . . . it’s handled as a civil matter. Paternity tests also did not exist at that time. . . . The documents indicate he had no prior criminal history. He had returned from serving his country in Vietnam, and he gets sent to prison for refusing to pay child support for children he legitimately believed were not his? If anything, I get a little outraged at the system.
What inspired your book?
Fetsco: [It] actually began with a colleague [who] read my most recent law review article as part of a research fellowship we were in together … she commented that she liked it, and she wondered if I had any narratives or case studies to supplement the research…. Then [former] Gov. Mike Sullivan called a few weeks later, and we talked . . . about how he commuted so many more inmates than governors who followed him . . . For the most part, there was no [violent] recidivism from any of those people Sullivan granted commutations to. . .
Tell us about second chance legislation.
Fetsco: … [It] is the idea that you take a second look at people serving life terms. You may have a cut off, say 20 years. …. There is no second chance legislation in Wyoming, but [it exists] in California, New York and Washington, and it has been introduced as possible legislation in 25 states.
Could it gain traction in Wyoming?
Fetsco: At this point, I haven’t spoken with any legislators about second chance legislation, and I will probably wait until my book is out before really trying to raise awareness. At the moment, I am working with a few state legislators regarding some legislation around the issues I raised in my last law review article, particularly regarding qualifications of [parole] board members.
The U.S. murder rate rose 30% between 2019 and 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. The Third Way reported that Wyoming’s murder rate increased 91.7%. What’s behind this?
Fetsco: . . .there is no simple answer; more likely, it’s a combination of factors. Without a doubt, COVID has played part. . . .COVID has been stressful on everyone in society, and I think it’s safe to assume that some of the tension comes from the pandemic. . . ..The George Floyd murder, other killings by police and the protests that followed have added to the tension. And Americans are buying guns in record numbers. It is also important to remember that in Wyoming, we are so small that a couple of extra murders above the average will greatly skew our data.
What can be done to decrease crime?
Fetsco: I believe more money needs to be spent on education and reentry [after incarceration].
What type of programs?
Fetsco: I would like to see programs that offer both college classes and vocational training. It would have to be voluntary, not mandated, although most all inmates would want to participate, believe me. People in prison are desperate for things to keep them busy, and very few prison inmates have a college degree. The data shows that prisoners who take some college classes are 43% less likely to recidivate, 85% less like if they get an associate degree and 95% less likely to reoffend if they get a four-year degree. However, college is not for everyone, which is why I would want to see robust vocational training programs in areas like construction, welding, etc.