By Guy Page
The Vermont Legislature is planning “the next wave of criminal justice and corrections reforms,” Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Vernon, said in her June 5 column in The Commons, a Windham County weekly newspaper.
The result, Coffey hopes, will be fewer people in prison and less recidivism due to better treatment programs in prison and post-release.
In 2007 Vermont prisoners totaled 2,200, a third of them incarcerated outside Vermont, Coffey reports. Today 1,800 are imprisoned or detained, with 240 held out-of-state. “This decrease is the result of a series of initiatives accomplished through the Justice Reinvestment Act back in 2007 and 2008,” including more diversion, transitional housing, and behavioral health treatment, Coffey said.
Then the opioid crisis slammed into the Vermont corrections system, swelling its numbers and challenging its ability to deliver substance abuse treatment. “We are seeing an increase in the number of women who are incarcerated and people entering corrections with opioid-use disorder. Our aging facilities were not designed to deliver the current offering of programs,” Coffey said.
There’s also a limit to the number of non-violent “low-hanging fruit” that can be released into the community. According to a February 2019 Seven Days interview with Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette, 231 of the 380 people being held for trial had been charged with one of the “Big 12” crimes: arson causing death, assault and robbery with a dangerous weapon, assault and robbery causing bodily injury, aggravated assault, murder, manslaughter, kidnapping , unlawful restraint, maiming, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, and burglary into an occupied dwelling. Almost half of the sentenced prisoners were serving time for one or more of these crimes.
“Yet in spite of the innovations over the last decade, a lot of work remains to be done,” Coffey said. She and her committee are working a “Justice Reinvestment” redo with the Council of State Governments. This purportedly data-driven, results-oriented program identifies prison cost drivers and solutions, implementation strategies, and measurement of results. It’s wonky stuff and it appears to be leading to construction of new prison facilities:
“With research and the right-sizing of the prison population, we can improve our system and design modern, trauma-informed correctional facilities that better meet the needs of those incarcerated, improve conditions for our state workers, reduce recidivism, save taxpayers’ dollars, and keep our communities safe,” Coffey said.
H.182, a bill to convert prisons into mental health clinics, was co-sponsored by five lawmakers (Coffey not among them) and was sent to House Corrections and Institutions. No further action was taken on the bill this year.
Prisons, of course, are terrifically expensive to build, staff and maintain. The state of Vermont pays $61,000 per inmate/year for instate incarceration, Touchette told Seven Days. In part to reduce costs and recidivism, the Legislature this year passed S.112 to reduce sentences for good behavior, and H.460 to expunge records of many non-Big 12 crimes.
Neither bill addresses the persistent housing shortage. Corrections this January held 121 inmates past their minimum release date in part because they had no housing options. As many other Vermonters can attest, it’s hard enough for skilled, employable workers with clean records to find affordable housing. For many released inmates with no money and strained family support systems, it’s virtually impossible.
Housing is particularly difficult to obtain for released sex offenders. A 2016 DOC request for transitional housing for sex offenders received no bids, Touchette said.
Also, pre-trial supervised release is problematic in Vermont because there are no state employees specifically tasked with pre-trial supervision, as is common in other states, Sen. Dick Sears told Seven Days. He added that only 13 releasees are wearing GPS ankle-bracelets.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.