Thursday April 26, 2012

MONTPELIER -- A five-year overhaul of the Vermont corrections system is showing good results, Gov. Peter Shumlin said Wednesday, with the state’s prison population and violent crime rates both shrinking.

Joined by officials from two organizations that have been advising Vermont on its efforts, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Pew Center for the States, Shumlin told reporters at a news conference that the rate of recidivism -- offenders committing new crimes after they are released -- also is down significantly.

Shumlin and the other officials said the figures show a striking turnaround since 2008, when Vermont’s inmate population, then 2,202, was projected to grow by 26 percent in the next 10 years. It had grown 86 percent in the previous decade.

"Vermont’s successful efforts to keep nonviolent offenders out of expensive jail cells, keep our communities safe, and help control the growing recidivism rate have saved taxpayers money and enabled inmates to build successful lives outside of jail," the Democratic governor said.

Shumlin’s office released figures showing since 2008:

-- $18 million in savings in spending on the prison system;

-- $6.4 million "reinvested" in programs designed to keep offenders out of prison;

-- A 5 percent decline in Vermont’s violent crime rate.

-- A 9 percent drop in recidivism from offenders released in 2006 and tracked through 2009 to another group of offenders released in 2007 and tracked through 2010.

Keys to that success have been support services for people being released from prison, including housing, job training and substance abuse counseling, officials said.

The head prosecutor in Vermont’s most populous county, Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, cited a program started in 2008, called the Rapid Intervention Community Court. The program puts offenders not deemed a risk to public safety on probation with conditions that they take advantage of local services, most often substance abuse counseling.

Under the program, cases are screened as they come in using a risk-assessment tool that has a track record of working in other states, Donovan said. He said about 800 offenders had been through the program in the past four years.

In a phone interview, Donovan called Shumlin’s announcement "good news. But we’re still facing significant challenges in the streets and in the courts." He cited a recent increase in burglaries reported by the Burlington Police.

"This is going to require continued work on everybody’s behalf, addressing the root causes of crime: addiction, mental illness," Donovan said.

Shumlin agreed. "We are not declaring victory today. ... We still have a long way to travel on this."

Shumlin credited the work of Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito, who was appointed by Shumlin’s Republican predecessor, James Douglas, and kept on by Shumlin. He also thanked the Council of State Governments and the Pew Center, which have been studying corrections issues around the country and advising Vermont and other states.

Richard Jerome, project manager with Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, praised Vermont’s efforts.

"Through bipartisan efforts, policymakers here and across the country are making better use of taxpayer dollars by implementing research-based sentencing and corrections strategies that make communities safer and hold offenders more accountable while reining in the cost of prisons," he said.