Waging “war” on behalf non-violent offenders

by Rob Roper

Peter Shumlin used his press conference to tout one of his campaign priorities, reforming how the state deals with non-violent offenders in our prison system.

“This is a war that has to be won for two reasons. First, I don’t think many Vermonters are proud of the fact that Vermont has a high number of non-violent offenders incarcerated, and they’re less proud of the fact that a huge percentage of them wind up back in prison within three years.”

This issue was a subject of controversy during the campaign as Shumlin claimed that he would save $40 million from the corrections budget through reforms dealing with non-violent offenders. It was quickly pointed out that to save that much money, we would have to release all 780 prisoners currently in the system classified as non-violent, and Shumlin backed off.

Given that background, the governor was quick to explain:

“Let me be clear. We’re not releasing any non-violent offenders. The challenge we have is that their terms tend to be on average one to three years… When their time is up, they get released into their community just like any other offender, and the services aren’t on the ground. What are those services? Drug and alcohol counseling, housing, job training, internships, life skills, mental health counseling…. If we can put the services on the ground, they won’t end up back in the system within three years. That’s victory.”

Although there is much merit and compassion in the governor’s goals, again money was an issue not easily explained. One reporter asked, “It almost seems too good to be true that you can do all this and save money.” This elicited a non-answer from Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who chairs the Judiciary Committee.

Asked again how much spending these programs would entail, Shumlin said, “Enough to win.”

Where’s the money going to come from?

Shumin said, “It’s going to come from filling up our existing facilities.” And explained, “Running the corrections facilities in terms of the financing is similar to dwindling populations in schools. It doesn’t cost you a lot more to run a school for 100 kids as it does for 150 kids.”

Part of the governor’s proposal was to bring back prisoners who are currently being held in out of state facilities in order to fill Vermont’s prisons to capacity. But how much this would actually save, if anything, was a subject of debate. The number offered by Sen. Sears was about $666,000, which doesn’t seem like “enough to win.”

Again, we’re getting vague plans with even vaguer financing mechanism from an administration that has a $176 million budget deficit to deal with.