Vermont Corrections sees boost in inmates, length of stay in prisons

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

As the Vermont legislative session began, lawmakers said reducing Vermont’s prison population would be a top priority this year. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe even wrote a letter to fellow lawmakers asking for “special emphasis” on the matter.

But new numbers show that since then the state has actually seen an increase in inmates. Between January and June, the Department of Corrections, or DOC, reports an 8% increase in the number of people charged with serious felonies in Vermont and a 14% increase in their average length of stay.

That means more Vermont inmates will be sent to the prison in Mississippi that houses the state’s overflow.

“We were making great progress to reduce those numbers,” said Mike Touchette, commissioner of the DOC. “But now we’re going to have to see more people going to Mississipi.”

Serious felonies aren’t the only kinds of crimes on the rise — almost every category of crime that the DOC tracks saw a small increase in charges over that period.

“That’s concerning — not alarming, but concerning,” Touchette said. “Is it a reflection of increased crime rates? Increased recidivism rates? An increase in violations by people under community supervision? That’s not something we know.”

More inmates are now staying between 31 and 90 days behind bars, with a 16% increase in the number of inmates with moderate-length stays since January.

“What we don’t know is whether or not those people are newly sentenced, or being detained, or were on some form of supervision previously — that’s data digging that we’re working on,” Touchette said. “We’re still trying to figure that out.”

But not knowing is a big problem for some of the state’s criminal justice advocates.

“One of the biggest concerns is that I don’t know that anybody knows what’s causing it,” said Tom Dalton, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. “There’s an issue when we’re spending many millions of dollars on a corrections system but don’t have a good handle on good data on who’s incarcerated and why.”

Matt Valerio, the state’s defender general, said he has a guess as to why prisions are seeing a spike — a newly increased number of judges is finally helping the state address its backlog of cases.

“The more likely cause than anything is that courts have resolved more cases, including those of a serious nature, than when they were short judges,” Valerio said. “They’re finally getting to things that were just backed up in the system.”

As far as the relationship between the two numbers — the number of charges and the lengths of stay — and actual prison populations goes, Touchette said it’s actually kind of difficult to say, since the prison population fluctuates so rapidly. Between January and June, 1,288 people cycled through the system, though the total population difference was just 1,726 inmates in January to 1,761 in June — only 35 additional inmates.

He said this is the first time the department has done this kind of number-crunching. Because this is new data, it’s not possible to compare with figures from past years.

“From a management perspective, an increasing number of people in our custody puts a strain on our ability to house people safely and humanely — we only have a certain number of beds,” he said.

Touchette said what ends up happening instead is that the DOC has to export prisoners out of state — something the state has been actively working to avoid.

Right now, the Department of Corrections has 87 more men than it has beds. So some are sleeping on something Touchette calls “sled beds” — essentially plastic cots. Though housing an extra inmate in each room is fire marshal-approved, Touchette said it’s certainly something they’d like to avoid.

“Quite frankly, what ends up happening is people have to sleep with their heads next to toilets,” he said.

And especially with the heat of the summer months, Touchette said, it’s better to send inmates out of state than to overcrowd them in Vermont prisons.

But Dalton said any solution that involves sending more inmates to Mississippi is not one the state should be considering.

“I think that the idea we’re going to be sending 20-30 more people out of state when there’s a lot of support for bringing those people home means we’re moving in the wrong direction,” he said.

“That’s a lot of devastation for those people and for their families and communities,” he said.

Dalton said this isn’t a situation in which the state should be throwing its hands up, not knowing what it can do. He said there’s a lot of things that can be done, noting that inmates are often in prisons for unjust reasons, like being held for lack of residence or being penalized for technical violations of their parole.

But one important bright spot, Touchette noted, is that the state’s efforts to reduce minimum prison populations — or the lowest number of inmates in Vermont prisons each year — have been a great success. Since 2014, that number has reduced by 237.

“That’s really the efforts of our staff working very hard with incarcerated individuals and their families and communities to find good and robust re-entry services and housing supports.”

Valerio, the defender general, warned that statistics in the Vermont criminal justice world often can be misleading, especially over a short time frame. He noted one statistic, in 1992, when the state saw 26 murders.

“People thought, ‘Oh my God, what is going on?’ ” Valerio said.

But the next year, that number was down to just four.

“The numbers are so small in Vermont, it skews,” he said. “Sometimes the anecdote is more accurate than the statistic. And people are telling me on the ground, things feel kind of pretty normal — average.”