ACLU report recommends cutting Vermont's prison population by half

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MONTPELIER — Drug decriminalization, expanded alternatives to incarceration, an investment in treatment for mental health and substance-use conditions, and reforming Vermont's bail, sentencing, and parole systems are among the recommendations of a report issued Tuesday by the ACLU of Vermont on reforming the state's prison system.

Called "Blueprint for Smart Justice," the report offers a list of detailed strategies intended to cut the prison population by half, increase the use of community-based alternatives, and address racial disparities that it says are among the worst in the nation. The report is intended to support the efforts of state leaders who are working on broad-based criminal justice reform proposals ahead of the coming legislative session.

The report was commissioned by the ACLU's national Smart Justice Campaign, which collaborated with the Urban Institute to produce a 50-state series of reports.

"Vermont and its elected leaders are committed to creating a smarter criminal justice system - and it's working," James Lyall, executive director of ACLU of Vermont, said in a media release. "With continued innovation, Vermont can serve as a model for other states, and send a clear message that Vermonters care about their communities and want to invest in people, not prisons."

Susan Sgorbati, director of Bennington College's Center for the Advancement of Public Action, told the Banner that state Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, was on campus last weekend, working on this issue with Annabel Davis-Goff, director of the college's Prison Education Initiative.

"We applaud efforts — by Vermont's elected officials and advocacy organizations — to find strategies to reduce Vermont's incarceration rate," Sgorbati said. "This is a national problem and Vermont has an opportunity to lead by finding solutions that can reduce the prison population, including alternatives to incarceration, while ensuring safe communities."

The Vermont Blueprint's findings include:

- Vermont's prisons have some of the highest racial disparities in the country, the sources of which are obscured by a lack of criminal justice system data. Although black people made up just 1 percent of the state's adult population in 2017, they accounted for 8 percent of admissions to correctional facilities.

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- Prison admissions for violations of probation, parole, and furlough are a key driver of mass incarceration in Vermont. In 2017, an estimated 2 out of every 3 prison admissions fell into this category.

- Many people in Vermont's prisons are incarcerated past their minimum release date. As of September 2018, 704 people — 63 percent of the sentenced population — were incarcerated beyond their minimum sentence, by an average of just over two years.

"The era of mass incarceration has done so much harm to countless Vermonters, including the 6,000 children who are still impacted by parental incarceration today," Smart Justice organizer Ashley Messier said in the release. "Working together, we have a golden opportunity to transform our criminal justice system so that it is fair, equitable, and rooted in community-based solutions."

The ACLU's report notes that, despite progress in recent years, Vermont is still working to undo decades of "tough on crime" policies. Between 1980 and 2009, the number of incarcerated Vermonters rose by 363 percent, reaching a peak of 2,220 people before a series of legislative reforms started to reverse the trend. The number of Vermonters in prison today is still double what it was 30 years ago.

The report also highlights the lack of readily accessible criminal justice data in Vermont, and that this serves as a major barrier to addressing racial and geographic disparities. Out of 50 states surveyed, Vermont is the only one that did not provide sufficient data for Urban Institute researchers to conduct a predictive analysis of the impact various reforms would have on Vermont's incarceration rate.

Polling shows Vermonters overwhelmingly support criminal justice reform, with nearly 70 percent agreeing it's important to reduce the number of people in prison.

"The actions taken by legislators this session are a powerful articulation of their commitment to reducing Vermont's reliance on incarceration by engaging in thoughtful criminal justice reforms," Falko Schilling, ACLU of Vermont's advocacy director, said in the release. "Everyone deserves fair treatment, no matter who they are or where they live, and our current system does not provide that. We have both an opportunity and a responsibility to create a smarter criminal justice system for all Vermonters."

In 2019, Vermont lawmakers charged the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee with pursuing polices to "create a smarter criminal justice system that prevents avoidable incarceration, returns people to communities without risking public safety, and reduces or eliminates the need for out-of-state prison placements or new prison bed capacity in Vermont."

As a result, the three branches of Vermont government and stakeholders including the ACLU are now engaged in a "Justice Reinvestment" process with the Council of State Governments, with the ultimate goal of passing wide-ranging reform legislation in 2020. A similar process in 2007 led to a nearly 25 percent decrease in the number of Vermonters in prison.


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