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Part 2 of 3: Vermont Prison System Out of Step With the Rest of New England

  • Suzi Wizowaty speaks with the panel at a forum held by Attorney General William Sorrell to allow for public comment on whether Vermont should consider changing sentencing and release policies in an effort to reduce incarceration rates at Burlington City Hall in Burlington, Vt., on Monday, December 14, 2015. Wizowaty founded the group Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, and organization that works with agencies and organizations to reform Vermont's prison systems. (Valley News - Kristen Zeis) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Robert Appel, Vermont's Defender General from 1993 to 2001, and executive director of Vermont's Human Rights Commission from 2001 to 2012, is photographed in his office in Burlington, Vt., on Monday, December 14, 2015.. (Valley News - Kristen Zeis) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 8/30/2016 5:20:06 PM
Modified: 8/30/2016 5:30:26 PM

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the Sunday Valley News on Dec. 28, 2015. It’s the second part in a three-part series.

Click here to read parts one and three.

Baldwin, Mich. — Strange as it may sound, Adam Corliss, who was sentenced to 50 years to life for first-degree murder in 1995, is among the more fortunate Vermont inmates at the North Lake Correctional Facility here.

In Vermont’s criminal justice system, the amount of time offenders spend behind bars for committing the same crime can vary drastically. A lot depends on when the offense occurred.

Twenty years ago when a jury found the teenaged Corliss guilty of fatally stabbing a young woman in Springfield in a dispute over drug money, Vermont was still awarding so-called “good time.”

For every 30 days incarcerated, an inmate received an automatic sentence reduction of 5 days or so, providing they stayed out of trouble. Along with being rewarded for good behavior, inmates could earn additional time off their sentences by working and going to school.

The good-time provisions make Corliss, now 41, eligible for parole in 2027 — 18 years earlier than his minimum sentence calls for.

But in mid-2005, good time ended for new inmates.

The Vermont Legislature changed sentencing laws to require all offenders who committed their crimes after June 30, 2005, to serve at least their minimum sentences.

Vermont was by no means alone.

By 2005, many states had already done away with good time as part of the get-tough-on-crime crackdown that swept the country in the 1990s.

Since then, other states have recognized that eliminating good time was a failed experiment, if for no other reason than keeping offenders in prison longer is costly. With the arrival of the Great Recession in 2008, cash-strapped states had something of an epiphany, and good time came back in vogue.

Just not in Vermont.

Of the six New England states, Vermont is the only one that currently doesn’t award some form of good time. (The exception being inmates at the state’s work camps in Windsor and St. Johnsbury, Vt., where it remains in effect.)

“At its very core, good time is an incentive for people in prison to take advantage of programming and other opportunities,” said Ryan King, a fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank that advocates for reducing America’s prison population. “If you’re trying to transform prisoners’ lives, you need to have some incentives.”

A Push For Longer Sentences

The use of good time is part of a much larger debate about why the U.S. has become so incarceration-happy in recent decades. Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has more than quadrupled to 2.2 million. The U.S. accounts for roughly 25 percent of the world’s prison population, but has only 5 percent of the world’s population.

Much of the growth has occurred in the last 30 years or so. (In 1985, Vermont had about 600 people behind bars compared with today’s 1,800.)

A 1999 Justice Department special report provides an overview of the climate that led states to enact “truth in sentencing” laws that have resulted in the U.S. having more people behind bars than any other country.

“Pressure for longer sentences and uniform punishment led to mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines in the 1980s,” the report stated. “However, prison overcrowding, good-time sentence reductions for satisfactory prison behavior, and earned-time resulted in the early release of prisoners.”

By the early 1990s, there was a growing sentiment, nationally, that offenders should serve a larger portion of their sentences. As with a lot of other movements, however, it took the federal government putting money on the table for it to gain traction.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 provided $7.9 billion in federal grants to encourage states to lock up more violent offenders for longer periods of time and to expand their prisons.

Over the next five years — when Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America was in its heyday — 41 states passed laws or implemented some form of truth in sentencing, an Urban Institute study found.

Interestingly enough, Vermont wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t until a few years later that Vermont jumped on the truth-in-sentencing bandwagon.

Good time was among the policies that came under scrutiny, recalled Jim Douglas, who was governor at the time.

“There had been lots of errors — folks getting too much time credited and others too little,” Douglas wrote in a recent email exchange that I had with him. “The formula was quite complicated and all the mistakes understandably cost the program some credibility.”

Around that time, Steve Gold was commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Corrections. Although there was no hard evidence, Gold told me, he was concerned that the awarding of good time might be too arbitrary. “It was a situation that had the potential for abuse,” he said. “If you were an inmate who got on the wrong side of a guard, they could mess with your good time.”

The loss of good time has had an adverse effect on more than just offenders, said Burlington attorney Robert Appel, who served as the state’s Defender General from 1993 to 2001.

“Eliminating good time made the difficult job of being a corrections officer an even more difficult job,” Appel said. “What’s the incentive for an inmate to behave?

“As a behavior management tool, it made no sense to abandon good time. The Legislature took away the carrot and all they have left is the stick.”

‘Always Good Politics’

A decade after the sentencing laws changed, Norwich criminal defense attorney George Ostler said Vermont still hasn’t seen the error of its ways.

“The sad reality is that in Vermont, as well as the rest of America, locking people up for longer periods of time is always good politics, even if it is rarely good public policy or effective in reaching any important goal,” he told me.

“There always has been and continues to be a disconnect between sentencing laws and legitimate social science research. The government locks people up for very long periods of time for nonviolent conduct, but the government has very little data on the net effect of these sentences, besides being very expensive.”

Vermont is currently spending $160.9 million annually on corrections — nearly twice as much as it spends on higher education.

This year, it’s costing Vermont taxpayers $62,000 — more than most colleges charge annually — to keep an offender locked up in-state. Meanwhile, it costs $22,600 to house each of the 241 Vermont offenders at the North Lake Correctional Facility in northern Michigan.

That’s largely because Vermont uses North Lake, a private prison, as a warehouse for inmates serving lengthy sentences. The inmates have limited access to schooling or rehabilitative and vocational training opportunities.

About half of the inmates have jobs that pay $1 to $3 a day. It’s not unheard of for inmates to spend their days playing video games, watching TV and sleeping.

“The DOC is supposed to be largely about rehabilitation and helping people successfully reintegrate into society,”Appel said. “If corrections is about correcting behavior, having people sit in a cage year after year after year doesn’t produce good results.”

Without the potential of reducing their sentences by earning good time, inmates have little incentive to perform the menial jobs, such as peeling vegetables in the kitchen and cleaning tables in the cafeteria, that North Lake has to offer.

Which brings me back to Adam Corliss. He earns $2 a day mopping and waxing floors.

With his good time, Corliss is eligible for parole in June 2027. (A “grandfather” clause allowed Corliss and hundreds of other offenders to keep at least a portion of the good time they had accrued before the law changed in 2005.)

“I don’t want to be a whiner; I deserve to be where I am,” Corliss told me during my visit to North Lake earlier this month. “But just because I have a minimum date doesn’t mean I’m getting out then. DOC is not going to just open the door and let me out.”

Statistically, unless Vermont changes its approach to incarceration in the next dozen years, the odds aren’t overwhelming in Corliss’ favor to be released when he becomes eligible. Of Vermont’s 1,800 inmates, 675 have served beyond their minimum sentences. (That’s an issue that I’ll explore more in the third part of this series on Tuesday.)

With and Without Good Time

After consuming way too much alcohol at a family wedding reception in October 2010, Darrell Day made the mistake of getting behind the wheel.

In Bennington, Vt., he rammed his car into the back of a van. The van’s driver suffered a concussion. Three young passengers were uninjured.

Day was found to have a blood-alcohol level of .20, 21/2 times the legal limit. At the time, Day was scheduled to stand trial in Massachusetts the next month on another DUI charge. With a long history of felony convictions in Vermont and his home state of Massachusetts, Day was charged as a habitual offender.

Day, who is now 55, couldn’t afford a private lawyer. Represented by a public defender, Day said, he had no idea what the judge could do to him. He was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison.

With the elimination of good time in 2005, Day won’t be released until 2031, at the earliest. “I got what amounts to a life sentence for drunk driving,” he said. “There are guys in here who killed people who got less time.”

In 2001, teenager Laird Stanard pleaded no contest to killing his mother with a single blast from a 20-gauge shotgun and attempting to do the same to his father at the family’s home in West Windsor.

He received a sentence of 25 years to life. But with good time still on the books, he ended up spending a little more than 15 years in prison, counting the time he was incarcerated prior to sentencing.

By all accounts, Stanard, who spent much of his time out of state, was a model prisoner. He earned his high school diploma, tutored other inmates and stayed out of trouble.

Stanard was released last February when he was 32. The last I heard, he was living at Dismas House, which provides affordable housing for recently released inmates in Burlington, and was working at a restaurant. (I emailed Stanard shortly before Christmas but didn’t hear back.)

Without good time to knock 10 years off his sentence, where would Stanard be today?

The North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Mich., with 241 other Vermont inmates, would be a safe bet.

New Hampshire Changes Course

New Hampshire isn’t known for its progressive government policies. And Rep. David Welch, of Kingston, N.H., would seem an unlikely candidate in the New Hampshire Legislature to be out front in an effort to reduce the state’s prison population.

Welch, a 75-year-old retired telephone company technician, is a 15-term Republican lawmaker from the southern part of the state.

Welch, vice chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, was among the first to suggest bringing back earned good time. “It wasn’t met with much enthusiasm,” he said. “Half the House wants to lock up (offenders), and throw away the key forever.”

With most House Republicans, anything that is viewed as good for criminal offenders is “not a popular cause,” he said.

Welch points out to his colleagues that “since we passed truth in sentencing, our prison population has skyrocketed. It costs a lot less to keep them out than to keep them in.”

Last year, after several tries, New Hampshire enacted a change that grants “earned” good time — with a judge’s approval — to inmates who go to school. A GED is worth a 90-day reduction and a high school diploma can knock off 120 days. A two-year college degree can cut 180 days.

“A lot of inmates don’t even have a high school diploma when they get locked up,” Welch said. “This gives them an incentive.”

In January, New Hampshire lawmakers will look at expanding earned good time to inmates who earn four-year college degrees.

“When people get out, they’re either ready to get on a straight and narrow path, or they’re ready to do more crime,” Welch said. “We need to do everything we can to encourage them to get an education, so they don’t come back to prison.”

An Unattractive Constituency

What are the chances that Vermont will bring back good time?

“No chance whatsoever in our current political climate,” Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio said.

His office is responsible, among other things, for representing offenders in legal matters once they are behind bars. He remembers losing the fight to keep good time on the books in the early 2000s.

“It was primarily driven by victims’ rights advocates,” Valerio said. “They were the big pushers.”

Victims’ rights groups argue that the sentence imposed should be the sentence served. Victims are entitled to know with reasonable certainty when an offender will be released.

Criminal justice reformers counter that good-time incentives improve inmates’ behavior while in prison and encourages them to participate in programs that can make them better citizens when they get out.

“It’s a very difficult argument to make because it doesn’t have a very attractive constituency,” Valerio said.

Suzi Wizowaty, a Burlington writer who has led book discussions and writing workshops in Vermont prisons, is one of the few vocal allies that inmates have.

Wizowaty served three terms in the Legislature before leaving last year to concentrate on Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, a nonprofit organization that she started in 2013.

“Victims’ rights advocacy groups have had a negative impact on criminal justice reform,” Wizowaty said. “Victims’ rights is a sacred cow in Vermont. The groups have a lot of power.”

Judy Rex, executive director of the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services, said crime victims and the groups that represent them don’t have as much clout in Montpelier as some people think.

“I’ve always been impressed with the Legislature’s ability to listen to everyone and then do what is right,” said Rex, who has headed the state agency for 14 years. “It’s a balance between what offenders need and what victims need.”

The system in place now calls for judges to set minimum and maximum periods of incarceration with little wiggle room.

“Sentences need to be that straightforward,” Rex said.

Rep. Alice Emmons, a Springfield, Vt., Democrat, is chairwoman of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions. Bringing back earned good time is “put on the table every once in a while,” she said.

“It is a magnificent tool that operators of correctional facilities can use to improve offenders’ behavior,” Emmons said. “It also puts pressure on DOC to have work and educational programs available to offenders.”

Even if legislation to re-instate earned good time was proposed, Emmons wouldn’t expect it to get far. Ten years after it was eliminated, public sentiment hasn’t changed much.

“There’s a public feeling that if people are given a sentence, they need to fulfill it,” Emmons said.

After he became governor in 2003, Douglas, a Republican, appointed a commission to look at the state prison system. The commission “strongly supported good time, but the Legislature apparently had other ideas and went in a different direction,” Douglas said.

A strong argument can be made that it was the wrong direction. Nevertheless, Vermont seems to lack the political will to change course.

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




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