Wednesday, April 9
BRATTLEBORO -- State lawmakers and corrections officials are hoping that a bill President Bush is expected to sign today will help Vermont's struggling prison system.

The president is expected to sign the Second Chance Act in Washington, D.C., today, which will give states money to invest in treatment and rehabilitation programs.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., co-sponsor of the bill, worked with the Vermont Department of Corrections and the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services to identify programs in the state that support offenders when they re-enter society.

Vermont's director of planning in the corrections department, John Perry, said the federal law will hopefully bring much needed dollars to the state corrections system which is struggling to pay for many of the creative and successful reentry programs.

"We are desperate for this money," Perry said. "The bill as it is written is very supportive of the sort of restorative justice and community justice programs we have here in Vermont."

The Second Chance Act marks a sharp change in how the federal government considers prisoners and funds rehabilitation.

With the prison population in the nation, and in Vermont, reaching all time highs, the new federal law commits funding to keeping people out of prison and tries to support programs that give them a chance to succeed on the outside.

The act would let organizations apply for grants, and authorizes up to $170 million annually to invest in education, housing, treatment and employment.

"We're very pleased with this bill," said Perry. "In the past the federal government has been unwilling to fund these programs unless they were in jail. With about 2.3 million people in jail in America that is a lot of people coming home and it is in the best interests of all of us that they come out better than when they went in."

Sen. Leahy, in a press release, acknowledged that the bill was compromised some as it went through the House and Senate, but he said it will encourage more states in the nation to try some of the programs that Vermont has developed that support men and women when they leave incarceration.

"The Second Chance Act is a good first step toward a new direction in criminal justice that focuses on making America safer by helping prisoners turn their lives around and become contributing members of society," Leahy said. "As a former prosecutor, I believe strongly in securing tough and appropriate prison sentences for people who break our laws. But it is also important that we do everything we can to ensure that when these people get out of prison, they enter our communities as productive members of society, so we can start to reverse the dangerous cycles of recidivism and violence."

Vermont's corrections population has been rising steadily since 1975, when there were just more than 3,000 people in prison, reentry and parole and probation, to 12,559 recorded in 2007.

The number has dropped over the past few years

The state's fractured prison system, which operates nine small correctional facilities, puts the per-bed cost in the state at almost $46,000 annually.

The Vermont Legislature has been working on a number of corrections-related bills this session, but the Senate and House committee have had to scale many of them back due the economic challenges the state is facing.

Rep. Daryl Pillsbury, I-Brattleboro, who sits on the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, said any help from Washington would go a long way toward helping Vermont make changes in its prison system.

"We have had to step down a number of programs and a little cash would give us a second chance," Pillsbury said about the federal grants, which will probably not be available for at least another year. "It doesn't do us any good to throw these folks into prison without treatment. They go out and come right back in. We don't have the money to fund the old programs, let alone new ones. If we had another one or two million dollars it would save us money. We are trying to do what we can."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reform-er.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.