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Jim Kenyon: An Argument for Ending Mass Incarceration

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Gov. Phil Scott administration’s proposal to build a 925-bed, $150 million prison complex in northwestern Vermont is a no-brainer. As in, it takes only half a brain to see what a bad idea it is.

I just wish the governor was in Hanover on Monday to hear Janos Marton, who is at the forefront of the effort to end mass incarceration in the U.S. Marton, a 2004 Dartmouth graduate, delivered this year’s “Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at Dartmouth Lecture.”

The Scott administration certainly could benefit from hearing Marton’s perspective before squandering any more time or money on this ill-conceived proposal.

“The entire public perception of the people in jail and how long they need to be there has to change,” Marton told a full house at the Rockefeller Center-sponsored event. “We need bold reform.”

Marton, formerly an attorney with a civil rights law firm, is director of policy and campaigns at JustLeadershipUSA, a New York-based nonprofit, working to cut the country’s prison population in half by 2030.

“Some people think we’re kind of crazy,” Marton said.

What’s even crazier: The U.S. only has 5 percent of the world’s overall population, but with 2.2 million people behind bars, it accounts for nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

Few people took JustLeadershipUSA seriously when it began advocating for the closing of New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex. But last March, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Rikers Island, known for good reason as “Torture Island,” would gradually be mothballed. The first of its nine jails is scheduled to close this summer.

“It was a major victory,” Marton said. “If we can close Rikers Island, we can close prisons anywhere.”

A key to reducing the prison population is electing state and local prosecutors who understand that being “tough on crime” doesn’t mean they are “keeping communities safe,” Marton said. Nine in 10 people sent to prison eventually get out.

Jennifer Sargent, an attorney and former New Hampshire judge who now teaches at Dartmouth, was sitting near the front for Marton’s talk. During the question-and-answer period, she pointed out that reducing the prison population will require tougher scrutiny of judges, particularly elected ones.

It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have fewer white males in black robes. “Judges are a problem in the (U.S.) system,” Marton said. “No one has really challenged them.”

With so many judges hailing from the country club-set, minorities who run afoul of the law have reason to be nervous. In New Hampshire, for instance, black individuals are five times more likely to be in jail than white people, New Hampshire Public Radio reported in 2016.

The Scott administration’s plan to construct a complex with 925 prison beds makes it easy for judges and prosecutors to justify a build ‘em and fill ‘em approach.

The proposal would replace 175 beds at the women’s prison in South Burlington and provide more than enough beds to house 250 male inmates now being kept out of state.

There also would be 50 beds for sick and aging prisoners, whom criminal justice reformers argue no longer pose a threat to society and should be released.

Under the plan, an additional 120 new beds would be rented to the U.S. Marshals Service, which is in the business of locking up immigration and border detainees. In Vermont, that often means farmworkers.

Talk about blood money.

The state also would close Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Colchester and put 25 psychiatric beds for youth offenders in the proposed complex. (I won’t follow Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille’s lead and call it “campus-like.” What’s on the drawing board is about as far from a college as it gets.)

State officials want to sell the public on the idea of one-stop shopping. Herding nearly 1,000 offenders into one location will supposedly make it easier to provide treatment for the problems often behind them landing in prison to begin with.

It’s counterintuitive to say the least.

“We wait until someone is in jail to get them substance abuse and mental health treatment,” Marton said. The services, he added, should be “moved out of jails and into communities.”

What a novel concept: Treat substance abuse and mental illness as health problems, not crimes.

I’ve saved the worst news surrounding the Scott administration’s plan for last: A large for-profit prison company is lobbying legislators and the governor to build and lease the facility to the state.

The company is called CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America. The company, plagued by accusations of inmate abuse and bad press, changed its name in 2016.

How’s that for rebranding?

* * *

In last Wednesday’s column, I wrote that avid runner Mike Cryans had made three bids for the Executive Council.

Joe Kenney, the Republican who has defeated him three times in recent elections, pointed out to me via email that Cryans has actually run four times. In 1996, he lost to Ray Burton.

“He is a great runner,” Kenney said.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.