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Editorial: ACLU of Vermont recommends steps toward ‘Smart Justice’

Published: 10/19/2019 10:10:08 PM
Modified: 10/19/2019 10:10:06 PM

On Thursday, we began discussing the ACLU of Vermont’s comprehensive new strategy for sharply reducing the number of people incarcerated by the state. As we noted then, three decades of “tough-on-crime” policies beginning in the 1980s resulted in a vast expansion of Vermont’s prison population. Wiser heads finally prevailed in 2008, and reform efforts by the Legislature led to a reduction in the number of inmates from a peak of about 2,200 to about 1,700 as of this June.

The ACLU wants to shrink that number by at least another 500, and in Blueprint for Smart Justice it proposes many ideas for how this could be done. Before getting to the specifics, though, let’s focus on why imprisoning fewer people makes sense.

In Vermont’s case, one of the most compelling arguments is that doing so would mean being able to bring back to the state more than 200 inmates held in a private prison 1,300 miles from home because there is no room for them in the state’s prisons. These offenders generally have been convicted of more serious crimes, but nearly all will be released at some point. Enabling them to serve their time in their home state can strengthen the family ties that are so often essential to helping them avoid re-offending.

And as we mentioned Thursday, there is also a sound fiscal argument to end mass incarceration. In 2017, it cost Vermont taxpayers $148 million to finance corrections, 10% of general fund expenditures. Shrinking the share of the pie devoted to locking up people would free up resources that could be devoted to many pressing needs such as increased support for higher education, child care, mental health and affordable housing.

Prison also divides families, creating a dynamic in which spouses, children and parents suffer the consequences along with their loved ones. This is necessary in some cases, but such collateral damage ought to be avoided whenever possible. Families belong together.

More broadly, prison squanders human capital that no society can afford to waste on a large scale. Too often prisoners fail to get the education, job training or counseling they need to succeed when they rejoin their communities. And at worst, prison can be little more than a school in which criminal behavior is reinforced or even learned. If you believe that most people have the potential to make something of their lives, then you cannot embrace long prison sentences as a way to unlock it.

The ACLU presents a number of ways in which the system could be reformed, several of which we will highlight here. Some of its proposals will surely meet resistance, but several others seem likely to be less controversial.

The organization notes that the Legislature recently established a commission to overhaul the state’s sentencing laws, and it advocates that the commission review both the use of incarceration and the length of sentences imposed with the goal of making incarceration a last resort. It observes that Vermont generally has harsh sentencing laws and suggests that all sentences be capped at a maximum of 20 years.

We doubt that this will happen, but the general point is the right one. The ACLU notes, for example, that Vermont has the lowest felony threshold for theft of any New England state, resulting in felony sentences for what would be misdemeanors elsewhere in the region.

Other proposed initiatives include expanding alternatives to incarceration, such as restorative justice, that seek to hold accountable those responsible for harm and to support those who were harmed without resorting to incarceration; decriminalizing sex work and drug offenses beyond marijuana; bolstering treatment options for those with mental health conditions and substance use disorders; reforming the bail system to ensure that only those who pose a clear and present danger to others are held in pretrial detention; reducing furlough and parole revocations for technical violations when no new crimes are committed; and establishing Conviction Integrity Units in each county to oversee prosecutors’ charging decisions.

Before the Legislature can undertake a comprehensive reform effort, however, it needs information about how the criminal justice system now works, something the ACLU asserts is sadly lacking in Vermont. It notes that the Department of Corrections publishes little publicly available data. Particularly lacking, it says, is information about prosecutorial decision making; admissions to prison; breakdowns of charges and sentences for the incarcerated population; length of stay in prison over time; and decisions about probation, parole and furlough.

This deficiency ought to be swiftly remedied by lawmakers passing pending legislation that requires such information to be compiled and published regularly.

That’s the first step on what we hope will be a journey toward a new, smarter and more compassionate criminal justice system.

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