MONTPELIER >> The number of inmates in Vermont prisons is at its lowest level since the early 2000s, Gov. Peter Shumlin said Monday.
On Monday there were 1,734 inmates in Vermont prisons, a decline of 17.5 percent since Shumlin took office in early 2011 when there were 2,103 inmates in custody. Also, the number of inmates being held in out-of-state prisons has fallen 52 percent since Shumlin took office from 562 to 271 today.
Shumlin cited a series of policy changes and new laws for the drop, including alternatives to incarceration for first offenders, the elimination of criminal penalties for small amounts of marijuana and making it easier for people convicted of some crimes to get jobs with the state.
"Policies to keep Vermonters out of jail and to reduce recidivism rates allow us to save money and invest in things like early childhood education, which we know can reduce incarceration rates over the long term," Shumlin said Monday. "Locking people up is incredibly expensive. We should do everything we can to avoid it when possible."
Like many states, for years Vermont grappled with an expanding prison population, including contracting with out-of-state prisons to house inmates that couldn't be held in the state's prisons and jails.
"It's good news, it's terrific and we need to keep on. We need to do a lot more," said Suzi Wizowaty, an inmate advocate who heads the group Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. "The good news is the fewer people in prison, the greater increase we're going to have in public safety because prison makes you worse."
In addition to the laws and policies cited by the governor, Wizowaty credited a number of Corrections Department policies with keeping people out of prison.
One of the biggest drivers that sends inmates back to prison is what she calls "technical violations," such as drinking alcohol when the person has been ordered not to.
"When the person gets out, the person has to deal with his or her drinking problem and drinking is not illegal. So does it make sense to set that as a condition?" she said. "The drinking may be a problem, but if the person is not committing a crime, then it's a personal problem, not a legal problem."