James Lyall: New prison plan undermines criminal justice reforms

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Vermont stands at a crossroads on criminal justice reform. The direction we choose will have enormous implications for the well-being of Vermont communities for generations to come.

On the one hand, we have the opportunity to transform how we respond to social problems and crime by investing in people to achieve better outcomes and stronger, healthier communities.

On the other, we can continue the same misguided and ineffective approaches that fail to address many of the reasons why people end up entangled in the legal system in the first place: addiction, lack of access to appropriate health care and mental health resources, unstable housing, systemic racism and severe economic inequality.

It is clear we must choose one direction or the other. We can't do both.

This choice is highlighted in recent proposals to close Vermont's only women's prison, Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF). Conditions in the facility are deplorable and a high proportion of the women arrive there with extensive histories of untreated trauma and abuse. A similar number are primary caregivers for dependent children — 6,000 Vermont children have a parent who is incarcerated.

Vermonters strongly favor more effective, lower-cost alternatives to incarceration and for years advocates have urged that most of the women in CRCF should be in halfway homes or step-down facilities that could better address their needs and not compound trauma.

Yet, at the same time renewed calls to divert women prisoners into alternative programs are gaining traction, the Legislature appears to be headed in the opposite direction. Specifically, buried in House bill H.543 is a provision to allocate $250,000 to "evaluate options for the site location of a new correctional facility" to replace CRCF, including "whether the new correctional facility should be a separate facility or part of a campus."

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Notably absent from the legislation is any consideration of more effective, lower cost alternatives to incarceration, or smarter criminal justice policies to reduce Vermont's overreliance on incarceration — exactly the options that Vermont taxpayers want their representatives to pursue before spending vast sums of money on new prisons.

In other words, by passing H.543 the House voted to study just one thing: more prisons. The Vermont Senate will be considering that legislation this week.

When they do, legislators should reject new prisons and instead commit to studying prevention and treatment programs, transitional housing, job training, and expanding our restorative justice system — all of which address rather than compound the root causes of incarceration, reducing recidivism and improving outcomes.

In addition to these alternatives, legislators should commit to reforming the criminal laws that have caused the number of women incarcerated in Vermont to triple in less than twenty years. That includes reducing the extreme prison sentences prosecutors routinely leverage in one-sided plea negotiations. It includes increasing prosecutorial oversight, reforming our furlough and parole systems, expanding the use of diversion and ensuring people aren't detained pre-trial simply because they can't afford to post bail. And, it includes transforming Vermont's response to addiction to get people the help they need, instead of relying on punishment to resolve our opioid crisis.

The ACLU of Vermont, Attorney General Donovan, many lawmakers, and other community leaders who have spoken in favor of these proposals are fully aware of the abysmal conditions in facilities like CRCF, and the need to end Vermont's reliance on out-of-state prisons. But we must reject the idea that new prison construction is an inevitable or even logical solution.

Rather, we should recognize the opportunity for real leadership and innovation to achieve stronger communities through smarter, fairer approaches to criminal justice. Legislators should listen to the majority of their constituents, who believe we should invest in people, not prisons.

James Lyall is the executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.


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