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Vermont Spending Less on Prisons

In the 2010 election campaign, then-gubernatorial candidate Peter Shumlin said he wanted to save $40 million in corrections spending over a four-year period. Twenty-one months into Shumlin’s first term, the state has about 400 fewer inmates and is spending $10 million per year less than originally projected.

The state is making progress, but several trends indicate that a continued decline in Vermont’s prison population could slow or remain static. The main reason is a recent rise in the number of pretrial detainees.

Last spring, Shumlin pronounced a victory in Vermont’s “war on recidivism.” The state had managed to reduce its prison population to 2,059 incarcerated people, about 400 fewer than forecast by the Council of State Governments for 2012.

Under the Shumlin administration, the Department of Corrections has stepped up programs to combat recidivism, and the initiatives appear to be working. Inmates are now receiving more treatment for substance abuse, drug and mental health issues. The state has also created new transitional housing for offenders.

In September, however, the number of detainees had risen 10 percent over the past year, according to a memo to Superior Court judges. That unexpected increase is hindering the state’s efforts to continue to pare down its prison population and further trim corrections costs, state officials said.

Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito said the governor’s $40 million figure remains feasible, but he added, “We still have a long way to go.”

The long-term impact of the upturn in detention rates depends on what portion of the detainees end up permanently incarcerated, Pallito said.

CLOSING THE REVOLVING DOOR

Several years ago state statistics on the corrections population were grim. From 1996 to 2006, Vermont’s prison population doubled, and costs rose accordingly. The department’s budget doubled in a decade and hit $142 million in fiscal year 2009. At the time, Vermont had one of the fastest growing incarceration rates of any state in the country. In 2007, the Council of State Government forecast that Vermont’s prison population would rise 23 percent, reaching over 2,700 people by 2018.

Since 2006, the state has ramped up efforts to scale back corrections costs by investing more funds in alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. In May 2008, Gov. Jim Douglas signed into law the Justice Reinvestment Act, which increased substance abuse treatment, vocational training and transitional housing programs for released offenders. In 2011, Gov. Shumlin signed off on the War on Recidivism Act, which expanded mechanisms for the release of nonviolent offenders on furlough or home confinement sentences.

The prison population currently hovers around 2,080, and though the net decrease from 2007 to 2011 was only 52 people, Sen. Dick Sears, chair and longtime member of the Corrections Oversight Committee, said this represents “tremendous progress” in light of the council’s predictions.

A reduction in the rate of recidivism has helped precipitate this drop and overall decline in the average growth rate of incarceration. Vermont’s recidivism rate decreased from 46.2 percent for prisoners released in 2002 to 40.9 percent for inmates who completed their sentences in 2007.

Jury is out until the data comes in, but Shumlin identifies five things as “the biggest ingredients in our success so far” — transitional beds, mental health counseling, drug and alcohol counseling, education and job training.

Pallito and Sears said they can’t gauge absolute or relative success levels for these programs until more data is available. The Vermont Center for Justice Research is evaluating outcomes for the state’s justice reinvestment programs, but because many of these have only been implemented within the last several years and recidivism is measured based on three-year intervals, there is an unavoidable delay.

Sears said detention rates have been higher than forecast in part because of the underutilization of home detention. The Corrections Oversight Committee will examine the issues with electronic monitoring, he says, because “even monitoring someone at home on a 24-hour basis will be cheaper than locking someone up.”

Currently, there are roughly 440 detainees — 140 more than the Corrections Oversight Committee projected for 2012. Sears described this as “the bulk of the problem” facing the corrections system for the near future.

When offenders are incarcerated prior to their sentence, they displace other prisoners who then end up in out-of-state facilities. It costs roughly $25,000 a year to house a Vermont prisoner out of state. Pallito said the total cost of the additional detainees is about $3.5 million.

Vermont currently has about 500 inmates in Corrections Corporation of America prisons.

Sears said on Nov. 16 the Corrections Oversight Committee will examine whether the Legislature should consider a centralized detention center to avoid costs associated with these displacements.

Amy Davenport, the chief administrative judge for the Vermont Courts, said the detention numbers are up in part due to an increase in criminal charges, which were up 5 percent from September 2011 to August 2012. Domestic violence and drug charges, both of which frequently lead to detention, increased most dramatically — domestic violence charges were up 27 percent during last July and August and drug filings were up 31 percent during the same time period.

THE COST QUESTION

Budget-wise, Pallito said, “2014 is going to be a challenge.” In addition to the $3 million to $4 million that the department needs to address unanticipated detainees, inflation and a routine state employee raise will further jack up the corrections budget request. How does this factor into that $40 million figure?

That answer depends, in part, on how you parse the numbers. Pallito estimates the state has avoided roughly $20 million in costs over the past two years.

This savings — about half of the governor’s promised $40 million — doesn’t take into account the rise in detention. Nor does it factor in Vermont’s aging prison population — in 2011, 13.7 percent of inmates were 50 years or older, up almost 4 percent from 2008. Medical costs for these prisoners will cause corrections costs to creep up, said Pallito.

Though the state has made significant progress weeding out nonviolent offenders from the prison system and making transitional housing available to those who have completed their sentences, this progress could start to plateau as the prison population “boils down,” as Pallito put it.

The decrease in the proportion of nonviolent to violent offenders in prison is a sign of success, he says, but this means the remaining population, which will increasingly consist of a larger proportion of violent offenders, will require lengthier — read costlier — treatment and transitional housing services.

In particular, the number of sex offenders as a percentage of the overall population has increased— about 500 of current inmates, or about a quarter of the state’s prison population fit this profile — and this group, Pallito said, poses a particular challenge because many communities are reluctant to house them.