Legislators: Prison overpopulation tied to lack of treatment

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More citizens are locked up in prisons than ever before in the United States, but research suggests that incarceration is neither the most cost-effective nor the most rehabilitative response.

While there are no federal prisons in the Green Mountain State, Vermont has seven state correctional facilities, and is running out of beds. As a result, Vermonters are being sent to Kentucky or Virginia to serve their sentences.

"The drug sweeps that have been put together [in Bennington] have had an impact, but the treatment and the implementation is still lacking," said Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"When you go to court that first time, what happens -- you either get sent to jail for lack of bail, or you get sent home," said Sears. "There's nobody saying ‘here's the treatment.'"

Citing tourism concerns and lack of necessary funding as factors resulting in the absence of drug rehabilitation services locally, Sears said his own addiction to cigarettes led him to understand the mental state required to stop addictive behaviors.

"There [are] times when you're most amenable to treatment, and one of those times is when you go before a judge," he said, calling statistics on the number of people in Bennington County needing treatment a "guesstimate."

In Vermont today there are as many people on waiting lists for treatment with opiate addiction than there were addicts just 15 years ago, according to Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Agreeing that part of the problem is the financial burden, Shumlin said he believed the issue is a health care one, rather than a criminal one.

"The irony is that we adjust to junkies in our front yard, but we can't seem to adjust to the notion of treatment in our backyard," said Shumlin, during a visit to the Banner offices this week.

"You couldn't find a more expensive option for drug addiction treatment than corrections," said Shumlin, summing up the problem.

The approximate cost of housing someone in a state correctional facility in Vermont is roughly $56,000 per year.

"The way we're dealing with this in terms of managing taxpayer dollars is a huge hit to the hardworking taxpayers," said Shumlin.

Over the past decade the corrections budget in the state has doubled, making it the only expense growing as fast as health care costs, according to the governor.

"We can't build enough prison beds, we can't throw enough money into corrections," said Shumlin. "What we need to be able to do as a state is define the difference between a nonviolent drug-addicted person and someone who would pose a threat to innocent people's lives. We're not doing a good enough job with that."

Serving on the House Judiciary Committee, State Rep. Suzi Wizowaty (D-Burlington) is also the founder and director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, and has experienced that locking people up doesn't work.

The nonprofit organization started by Wizowaty helps to organize grassroots movements and looks to reduce the prison population in Vermont by developing a more effective response to crime, rather than incarceration.

"It's clear that we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem," said Wizowaty, who noted there is no cause and effect between the number of people incarcerated and crime rates.

"There are 1.1 million people in jail nationally for drug-related offenses, that's more than ever before," said Wizowaty. "But we still have the same amount of people using drugs."

With many years spent working with offenders in Vermont jails, and helping to implement programs during which she got to know the inmates and their struggles, Wizowaty served as the program director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

"The longer a person is involved with the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to become a repeat offender," said Wizowaty, who previously served on the House health care committee prior to being reelected.

Counting drug rehabilitation, education and housing assistance programs as being extremely effective, Wizowaty said inmates who participate in such programs have a drastically lowered rate of recidivism.

"We need to stop criminalizing behaviors which aren't really criminal," said Wizowaty. "Every year people want harsher and longer sentences, and we're making things crimes which weren't crimes 20 years ago."

In response to questions about overcrowding in Vermont facilities and subsequent overspending on inmate health care, Shumlin said he thinks legalization of marijuana will make sense for Vermonters in the near future.

"I think we're making a huge mistake spending the precious resources we have on marijuana," said Shumlin, noting that heroin and opiate addictions are widespread in Vermont and a more serious problem that touches every economic sector.

"You've got it up near the monument and you've got it downtown, you've got it in the north end of Burlington and you've got it on Spear Street," he said.

The lack of programs available to inmates is even more apparent when Vermonters are sent to facilities in other states which often have no rehabilitation services available.

The lead sponsor of a failed bill that would have prohibited Vermont inmates from being housed in private correctional facilities, which would most notably have affected the state's contract with the Corrections Corporation of America, Wizowaty counts it fortunate that there are no private prisons within Vermont, but said private prison companies "spend a lot of money influencing legislation that promotes sentencing."

With a cost of only $25,000 to ship someone out of state, "There's a long debate about whether we should be using the Correction Corporation of America," said Shumlin.

"I've talked to offenders who have been shipped out of state," said Sears. "In my conversations with them, besides the fact that they're sent [away], they're pretty comfortable in the CCA, much more comfortable than when they were placed in Virginia."

The majority of inmates currently housed in Kentucky's Lee Adjustment Center, a for-profit prison, are from Vermont.

The mental health, sexual abuse, drug rehabilitation and educational services that would be offered in Vermont state facilities are largely unavailable within the CCA.

A controversial aspect of private for-profit prison services are the contract requirements for minimum occupancy within the facilities, sometimes requiring states to keep the beds as much as 90 percent full.

According to the Associated Press, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy will hold a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee to highlight the problem of overcrowding in federal prisons. The hearing is planned for Thursday in Washington, to discuss what Leahy calls "the federal prison population's unsustainable growth."

Partnering with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Leahy is sponsoring legislation to allow federal judges more flexibility in sentencing and to move away from mandatory minimum sentences.

"There is a lot that has been done over the last five years," said Wizowaty. "What we need is more public awareness."

For more information, visit www.vermontersforcriminaljusticereform.org.

Contact Khynna at kkuprian@benningtonbanner.com and follow her on Twitter @khynnakat.


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