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Editorial: ACLU of Vermont offers a valuable policy guide for prison reform

Published: 10/16/2019 10:10:14 PM
Modified: 10/16/2019 10:10:06 PM

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont has issued an ambitious blueprint for criminal justice reform that seeks to cut the state’s prison population by at least 500 inmates. As a policy guide to needed legislative action, it is an excellent first step.

The report, titled Blueprint for Smart Justice, also contains much useful background about how the current prison situation came about and why there is a compelling argument for reform.

Between 1980 and 2009, “tough on crime” initiatives in Vermont, as nationally, resulted in an explosion in the number of people behind bars — a 363% increase to a peak of 2,220 inmates. Recognizing that this trend was unsustainable as well as unaffordable, the Legislature passed reform legislation in 2008 that by this June had reduced the inmate population by about 500 to just over 1,700.

Still, when those under supervision in community settings are tallied, 7,400 people — more than 1% of the state’s population — were under some form of correctional control at the end of 2016. And the state still has to rely on a private out-of-state corrections facility to house more than 200 inmates for whom there is no room in Vermont’s prisons.

Needless to say, all this is expensive. In 2017, the ACLU reports, Vermont spent $148 million on corrections, amounting to a staggering 10% of general fund expenditures. (The 2019 figure is $157 million.) In all, spending on public safety — including the judiciary, State’s Attorneys, the Defender General, sheriffs and law enforcement — totaled $574 million in 2017, of which the Department of Corrections accounted for about a quarter.

Who are the incarcerated?

■ The ACLU says that while blacks comprise just 1% of Vermont’s adult population, they accounted for 8% of admissions to correctional facilities in 2017, a symptom of a criminal justice system that has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation.

■ About 8% of inmates are women. In Vermont, 90 percent of women involved in the criminal justice system have experienced physical or sexual abuse.

■ Inmates 50 and older accounted for 19% percent of inmates in 2018, up from 11% 10 years earlier, even though older offenders generally pose little risk to public safety.

■ Many people in the prison system suffer from mental health conditions and substance use disorders. The ACLU says an estimated 5% of inmates in 2016 were designated as having “significant functional impairments,” although that term does not encompass all people diagnosed with mental health conditions. And as of this May, 761 people in DOC custody were receiving treatment for substance use disorders.

Why are they all in prison?

The ACLU points to a number of reasons: Long, punitive sentences that can range up to 20 years for assault and robbery and up to 30 years for drug sales and trafficking; 23 percent of inmates have not been convicted of anything but are being held while awaiting trial; two out of every three inmates have served their minimum sentences, including hundreds still being held because they have not completed mandated programming or have been unable to secure housing approved by the DOC; and an estimated two out of every three admissions to Vermont prisons in 2017 came as a result of violations of conditions of probation, parole or furlough.

The data may be dry, but taken together they depict a wasteland inhabited by a population that largely can’t get a break but needs one in order to live a life useful to themselves, their families and their communities. The ACLU has a wealth of good ideas about how this can be accomplished. More on that in the future.

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