MONTPELIER — In the wake of an announcement that the federal prison system will move away from using private facilities, some candidates in Vermont see potential to end its out-of-state prison program by reducing the inmate population, while others raise issues around costs.
The Justice Department announced plans in August to curb the use of private prisons to house federal inmates.
According to the memo, the federal system turned to private prisons to accommodate a dramatic increase in the number of offenders in the system between 1980 and 2013.
"Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own bureau facilities," Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote in a memo dated Aug. 18.
However, the department determined federal facilities provide better correctional services, programs and resources, according to the memo. Private prisons fail to offer educational or vocational training — considered key to reducing recidivism — on par with the federal prison system, it says.
Incarceration trends in Vermont have seen a marked reverse in recent years also. In 2011, there were 2,103 inmates in Vermont. Projections by the Council of State Governments estimated that Vermont's prison population would be 2,619 by 2015.
Instead, the population has decreased. As of Sept. 1, Vermont's prison population was 1,798. Outgoing Gov. Peter Shumlin has attributed that reversal to criminal justice reforms.
Still, the population exceeds the capacity of Vermont's seven correctional facilities, and the state turns to private companies to accommodate the overflow.
Northlake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan, held 251 inmates. The facility is owned by the GEO Group, which Vermont has contracted with since July 2015. Vermont previously worked with Corrections Corp. of America, which housed inmates in Kentucky and Arizona.
According to the Corrections Department, the cost of housing an inmate out of state is about $25,000 a year. Incarcerating someone in Vermont runs about $62,000 annually.
For Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, the costs associated with bringing out-of-state prisoners back to Vermont are a major concern.
"In a perfect world, I believe that we should try to get all those who are incarcerated back in the state," Scott said. "The reality is it's a lot less costly to have some out of state."
Scott said that for him, there is a question of budget priorities.
"If I have to choose between trying to give a break to senior citizens, or give a break to those who serve in the military, or single moms struggling to get by, I probably will choose those before trying to move out-of-state prisoners in state," Scott said.
He noted that Vermont's prison population has been on the decline in recent years and said he would like to continue the trend of reducing the number of prisoners housed elsewhere.
"I'd like to find ways that we can get treatment for those that need it," Scott said.
According to campaign finance disclosure forms, Scott accepted a $2,000 donation from the GEO Group in March. Scott campaign spokesperson Brittney Wilson said in a statement that the donation does not influence his approach to private prisons.
Wilson said the cost of the state correctional system falls disproportionately to state taxpayers and that Scott would ask his administration to "conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis," taking the Justice Department's decision into account, before changing the use of private prison contracts.
In a statement, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter reacted to the federal decision to move away from private prisons.
"The Justice Department report confirms what we know — conditions and safety are not up to the highest standards in out-of-state jails. Inmates lack easy access to family and attorneys, and successful re-entry after prison is more difficult," Minter said.
She said that if elected, she would "explore phasing out" Vermont's use of private prisons. She would bring together a team of stakeholders from the criminal justice system with the goal of lowering the recidivism rate, she said. She'd also look to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders who are incarcerated.
"This is not just a moral imperative, but a financial one as well," Minter said.
Private prison companies have put money behind Democratic candidates also. According to campaign finance filings on the secretary of state's website, Corrections Corp. of America made a $500 contribution to the Vermont Democratic House Campaign PAC in January 2015.
Vermont Democratic Party spokesperson Christina Amestoy said that because the donation was to the House PAC, it was not within the party's fundraising efforts. She pointed to language in the party's 2014 platform that opposes using for-profit prisons.
Chittenden County State's Attorney TJ Donovan, who is running for attorney general as a Democrat, has long supported ending the out-of-state prison program.
"At the end of the day, this is a core responsibility of government," Donovan said. "If we're going to remove a citizen from our community, it is our obligation to incarcerate them and prepare them for re-entry."
Most inmates are going to be released at some point, he said. He argues that it is in the state's public safety interest and financial interest to focus on serving and rehabilitating offenders.
Donovan said he believes there is potential for Vermont to stop using private out-of-state prisons by reducing the state's incarcerated population.
He said he would support auditing the prison population to get a better understanding of who is incarcerated and why they are being held, and looking at data including age, reason for incarceration, mental illness and other factors.
With better understanding of the population, Donovan said, there could be opportunities to evaluate how to best serve those people. He said his approach is not "saying no to incarceration," but finding ways to use alternative justice approaches when appropriate.
These are Vermonters, and it's the state of Vermont's obligation to be responsible for them and not to contract it out," Donovan said.
Republican attorney general candidate Deb Bucknam said she would further explore the use of private prison contracts once in office. In her legal practice, she has encountered family members of prisoners held out of state.
"I've had clients whose family members are incarcerated out of state," Bucknam said. "It is hard on them."
However, she, like Scott, raised the question of the budget.
"I also know that Vermonters are being burdened with a lot of taxation and fees and so forth, and that's hard on them," Bucknam said.
Bucknam said the financial impact would factor into her consideration of for-profit prisons.
"Once I become attorney general, I will analyze it and see what the cost and what the benefits are if any," Bucknam said.