ACLU Vermont proposes plans to cut prison population

Published: 10/9/2019 10:07:02 PM
Modified: 10/9/2019 10:06:53 PM

The American Civil Liberties Union is pushing state officials and policymakers to reduce the size of Vermont’s prison population, pitching a series of reforms this week that would cut the number of inmates in the state by hundreds.

In a report published Tuesday called the “Blueprint for Smart Justice,” the ACLU of Vermont outlined wide-ranging justice reforms it hopes lawmakers will adopt, including an overhaul of the state’s probation and parole system, the elimination of cash bail and stricter adherence to minimum prison sentences.

In the last decade, Vermont already has taken steps to cut its prison population, enacting policy changes that have brought the number of inmates from 2,200 in 2009 to about 1,700 today.

But criminal justice reform advocates have said that the state needs to go even further to shrink the population.

“Despite recent progress, Vermont is still working to undo the damage of decades of so-called tough-on-crime policies,” James Duff Lyall, the executive director of ACLU Vermont, said Tuesday.

He added that Vermont still has “some of the worst prison racial disparities of any state in the country.” While black people make up about 1% of the state’s population, they made up 8% of admissions to Vermont correctional facilities in 2017.

The ACLU hopes that in the coming years, Vermont will shed at least another 500 inmates. Its legislative proposals entail sweeping and drastic changes to the state’s criminal justice system.

The organization recommends shortening prison sentences and capping maximum sentences for all crimes at 20 years. It also recommends decriminalizing drug possession and sex work, and increasing funding for mental health and substance abuse programs.

The ACLU wants the state to “decarcerate” the majority of women who are serving prison sentences in Vermont by establishing alternative criminal justice programs.

It also calls for the state to establish “Conviction Integrity Units,” panels designed to bring greater accountability to prosecutors and encourage them “to use greater scrutiny when reviewing and charging cases.”

ACLU leaders say they believe initiatives like bail reform and changes to the probation and parole system will gain traction in the Legislature in 2020.

In 2017, the ACLU said, an estimated two-thirds of inmates were admitted to correctional facilities because they violated the conditions of their probation, parole or furlough.

In 2020, the organization said it will push lawmakers to eliminate jail time as a punishment for inmates who violate their conditions of release without committing another crime.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that while the state has been able to greatly cut its prison population, it has struggled to reduce the number of people who are held because they can’t make bail or have violated their conditions of release.

For years, that number has hovered around 400 inmates. Sears said he supports looking at bail reform and changes to the probation and parole system.

He said that he doesn’t believe those who have substance abuse problems and violate conditions of release by drinking or using drugs should be sent back to jail, for example.

Instead, he believes that there should be a system of “graduated sanctions” for such violations, to avoid reincarceration.

“That shouldn’t be reason for rescinding their probation or parole,” Sears said. “I think you need to have graduated sanctions.”

Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, also said she was open to considering the ACLU’s recommendations.

She hopes to reduce the state’s prison population so that the roughly 250 inmates Vermont holds in a private correctional facility in Mississippi can return to the state.

“Ideally the goal would be not to have any (out-of-state prisoners), to be able to keep everybody here in Vermont, because we know that when people are here, closer to their families, they do better,” Grad said. “I really do think it’s a goal to bring folks back home. Certainly we have decreased our population, but we do need to do better.”

During this year’s legislative session, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P Chittenden, asked lawmakers to propose policies that would reduce the prison population by 250 inmates by 2022 so the Department of Corrections would no longer have to hold inmates out of state.

At the time, Gov. Phil Scott said he was open to reducing the inmate population but wanted to see specific proposals from legislators about how they intend to do it and whom they intend to release.

Scott’s office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday on the ACLU’s recommendations.

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