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Part 3 of 3: Vermont Finds Reasons to Keep Inmates Beyond Minimum

  • 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. (Valley News - Kristen Zeis) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Suzi Wizowaty, founder of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, listens as Robert Appel speaks 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. (Valley News - Kristen Zeis) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Published: 8/30/2016 5:27:53 PM
Modified: 8/30/2016 5:48:36 PM

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the Valley News on Dec. 29, 2015. It’s the third part in a three-part series.

Click here to read parts one and two.

At a small college in Iowa last month, Sen. Bernie Sanders pledged to go where few top-tier presidential candidates have dared in recent campaigns.

“I don’t make a lot of promises,” Sanders told supporters, “but here is one that I will make to you: If elected president, by the time I end my first term, this country will not have more people in jail than any other country.

“We spend $80 billion a year locking people up. In my view, it makes a lot more sense for us to be investing in jobs and education rather than jails and incarceration.”

As the Los Angeles Times reported following Sanders’ remarks at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, other candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, have also called for ending the “era of mass incarceration.”

Easier said than done.

Take Sanders’ home state. Vermont is known for progressive approaches to chronic problems such as how to protect the environment and provide health care for the poor.

But like most states, Vermont can’t resist locking people up. It currently holds 1,800 offenders behind bars, the lowest number in more than a decade. Still, that’s three times more than were incarcerated 30 years ago. (While the number of prison inmates has jumped 300 percent since 1985, the state’s overall population has increased about 20 percent over the same period.)

Vermont’s lawmakers, executive branch officials, judges, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies have all contributed to what conservative billionaire Charles Koch calls the “overcriminalization of America.”

From the far-right Koch brothers to the left-wing American Civil Liberties Union, the effort to reduce the country’s reliance on prisons has made for strange bedfellows.

Charles and David Koch have “quietly pumped several million dollars into efforts to fix a criminal justice system that many on both sides of the aisle believe is broken,” Time reported last year.

“Most people assume that conservatives are motivated by economics,” Pat Nolan, director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, told Time. “My experience is not that. It’s the moral issues... There’s no form of government domination greater than imprisonment.”

In the early 2000s, the Vermont Legislature — feeling heat from law-and-order advocates and victims’ rights organizations — joined the national truth-in-sentencing mania. As I wrote on Monday, the decision by Vermont lawmakers a decade ago to eliminate so-called “good time” has increased the amount of time that offenders spend behind bars.

By 2010, Vermont’s inmate population had swelled to 2,250 — nearly four times what it was in 1985. While the figure has decreased in the last couple of years, Vermont continues to have more inmates than prison cells.

But getting rid of good time — a way that inmates could reduce their sentences through behaving in prison, holding down jobs and taking classes — isn’t the sole reason that Vermont’s seven correctional facilities remain filled to the brim.

Although judges are responsible for handing down sentences, the Department of Corrections (DOC) exercises a great deal of sway in deciding who gets released from prison and when. DOC policies and practices are driving up the amount of time that offenders remain imprisoned.

Earlier this month, I visited the North Lake Correctional Facility, a private prison in Baldwin, Mich., where Vermont is holding 241 male offenders due to overcrowding at home.

One of the inmates I met was Anthony Bridger.

At the time of the interview, it had been almost seven years to the day that Bridger and a friend were caught breaking into a home in southern Vermont. In December 2008, Bridger was 22 years old with a serious drug problem. “Crack and pills,” he said.

To support his drug habit, Bridger embarked on a months-long burglary spree in southern Vermont and eastern New York. According to police in the two states, Bridger and his partner were responsible for as many as 150 burglaries during which they stole money, guns, electronics and other valuables from homes.

“I’d knock on a door, if nobody was home, I’d go in through an unlocked door or window,” Bridger told me. “If somebody answered, I’d tell them I was selling firewood or something.”

A Vermont judge sentenced him to a minimum of six years. It was Bridger’s first time in prison. According to DOC records, which are public information, Bridger fulfilled his minimum sentence on Jan. 26, 2015 — 11 months ago.

Still, Vermont keeps him locked up. “Everyone talks about wanting to help nonviolent offenders, but they’re still holding me beyond my minimum,” he said.

In addition to his Vermont sentence, he has eight years to serve in New York for the burglaries there. With good time, Bridger figures he could be out in another 61/2 years.

But Bridger, 29, can’t begin serving his New York sentence until Vermont has finished with him. DOC records put his maximum release date at Jan. 24, 2024.

It costs more than $22,000 a year to keep an inmate in Michigan. In Bridger’s case, I’m not sure why Vermont taxpayers are still picking up the tab.

Bridger would prefer being in his home state of New York. The sooner he starts serving his time there, the sooner he gets out.

But apparently there’s nothing to prevent Vermont DOC from requiring Bridger to serve his maximum sentence before shipping him across the border. If Bridger ends up serving the remaining eight years on his sentence, the cost to Vermont taxpayers could approach $200,000 — money that could be coming out of New Yorkers’ pockets instead.

Bridger told me that during the nearly seven years that Vermont has kept him locked up, he’s received no substance abuse treatment. “The time I’ve spent here is not helping me,” he said. “It just makes me more angry.”

In an email, Vermont DOC Commissioner Lisa Menard said that due to confidentiality rules, she couldn’t discuss Bridger’s case.

Maybe I’m missing something. Even though Bridger has served his minimum sentence, maybe it’s not as simple as loading him into a DOC van and dropping him off at a prison of New York’s choosing.

But even if Vermont has good cause for keeping Bridger past his minimum, it’s worth noting that he’s hardly alone.

In Vermont, 675 (37.5 percent) of the 1,800 offenders behind bars are serving time beyond their minimum sentences, according to DOC information provided at Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s recent community forum in Hartford.

Sorrell also held forums in Rutland and Burlington this month to get residents’ input on “whether Vermont should reduce its reliance on incarceration as a response to criminal conduct.” He’s expected to release recommendations to the Legislature when it convenes next month.

At the forum in Hartford, criminal justice reformers made it clear that they wanted the state to imprison fewer people, but not as a means to save tax dollars.

Money now being spent on incarceration could be shifted to help offenders with housing, job training, substance abuse treatment and mental health care when they return to the street. Or, better yet, the money could be used for more programs to help offenders avoid prison in the first place.

But like other states, Vermont must first decide whether reducing its prison population is a worthy goal.

An argument can be made that keeping offenders behind bars is good for local economies.

Statewide, the DOC has nearly 1,070 employees, including nearly 500 guards. Two large correctional facilities — by Vermont standards, anyway — in Springfield and Newport are major employers in their communities. Combined, they have 250 workers. The prisons provide decent-paying blue collar jobs that the economically struggling towns can ill afford to lose.

DOC employees, particularly those working inside the prisons and not at state headquarters, have little financial incentive to reduce the inmate population — and shrink the DOC payroll.

Which brings me back to sentencing.

After a judge hands down a sentence, an offender’s fate rests largely with DOC. It decides where an inmate serves his time, when he’s eligible for rehabilitation programs, and often whether he can be released prior to “maxing out.”

In prison, each inmate is assigned a case worker who, in effect, becomes the inmate’s gatekeeper. Without their case worker’s support and diligence, an inmate can languish in prison far beyond his minimum sentence just to get enrolled in rehabilitation programs that he needs to complete before being eligible for release.

While almost every inmate memorizes his minimum release date, it’s often a mirage.

In 2004, one in three nonviolent offenders were still behind bars after satisfying their minimum sentences. Ten years later, it had risen to more than two in five (44 percent), according to DOC’s most recent Facts and Figures online publication.

I asked Menard, who has worked in DOC for nearly three decades and was appointed commissioner in September, about getting nonviolent offenders out of prison quicker.

“Always putting public safety first, I think we can do better, and I think we have,” she wrote in an email. “We still have lower risk offenders who could likely be supervised safely in the community, but some do not have the financial means to secure and maintain stable housing, while others no longer have relationships with people in the community who could provide them a place to live.”

In the last three months, DOC has reduced the number of inmates who couldn’t be released for lack of housing by almost 20 percent, Menard said.

Finding suitable housing is particularly a problem for sex offenders. State laws prevent them from living close to schools and other buildings. And when those hurdles are cleared, neighborhood residents often put up a not-in-my-backyard fight.

“The hysteria and fear is understandable, but we have to work through that,” said Rep. Alice Emmons, of Springfield, who chairs the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions.

Emmons points out that offenders released before fulfilling their maximum sentences are still under DOC’s control. Probation officers scrutinize their movements and participation in treatment programs can be mandatory. “If they violate their conditions of release, DOC can pull them right back in,” Emmons said.

Along with a lack of housing, other offenders are kept beyond their minimum because DOC has determined them to be “high risk” for re-offending or they have failed to complete rehabilitation programs, Menard said. Some offenders decide to serve their maximum sentences to avoid DOC supervision once they’re on the street.

While DOC wields a lot of power, it’s a mistake to blame the department for all of the state’s incarceration woes, said Suzi Wizowaty, a former state lawmaker from Burlington who started the nonprofit Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform in 2013.

“Continuing to point the finger at DOC disguises the real problem,” Wizowaty said. “The real problem is the Legislature and governors who pass and sign these laws they think the public wants. They’re the ones creating new crimes and harsher penalties.”

For example: This year, Vermont enacted a law aimed at cracking down on “revenge porn” to go along with a “teen sexting” law already on the books.

Although the Legislature clarified a state law that had teens potentially facing felony charges for possessing nude photos of other teens sent to them, juveniles involved in “sexting” can still land in family court.

“All that does is bring more people into the criminal justice system,” Wizowaty said. “If we want to discourage young people from putting naked pictures of themselves online, we need to educate them about the consequences, not involve them in the criminal justice system.”

While Sanders and other presidential candidates, along with President Obama, have spoken about the need to drastically reduce the U.S. prison population, none have indicated how they’d accomplish the mission.

Freeing pot dealers won’t do it.

In state prisons, which hold 1.3 million offenders nationwide, only 16 percent are serving a sentence for nonviolent drug crimes, according to Justice Department statistics cited in a July 15, 2015, article in The New Yorker.

When it comes to reducing the prison population, “there aren’t any slam dunks,” said Ryan King, a fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank that studies criminal justice reform. “We are going to have to wrestle with other things that are far less palatable than releasing people who have been imprisoned for nonviolent drug crimes.”

Criminal justice reformers have a saying: If the risk is low, let’em go.

But letting go of those already incarcerated can open up DOC officials in Vermont and other states to second-guessing. If an offender who is released before serving his maximum sentence commits a horrific crime once back on the streets, corrections officials are the ones who will be held accountable. Playing it safe can be DOC’s best strategy.

And others’ as well. “No judge ever gets in trouble for sentencing someone to a longer period of time,” Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio said.

“I suspect it’s because we’re such a small state, we’re so risk averse,” Wizowaty said. “We overreact to crime. Legislators seem to think that making something a crime will prevent it from happening in the future. It doesn’t work that way.

“Crime affects us emotionally. People confuse accountability with punishment.”

Vermont, like the rest of America, seems to be at a crossroads.

The state can continue spending $110 million a year — a figure that will undoubtedly increase over time — on keeping thousands of offenders locked up. The Legislature can continue to criminalize more forms of behavior; judges can continue to hand down lengthy sentences; the DOC can continue to find reasons not to release offenders earlier.

And Vermonters can continue to be OK with it all.

Or they can decide to do it better and cheaper.

And it wouldn’t even take Bernie Sanders being president.

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




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