James Lyall: Prisons are the problem with Vermont's criminal justice system
Two facts about Vermont's criminal justice system were made clear in the final weeks of 2019. First, our state's justice system is far more dysfunctional, violent, and abusive than many Vermonters realized. And second, we have an opportunity, as well as a moral obligation, to subject far fewer people to that system than we currently do.
Prisons are the problem, and the solution is to create a system that is more humane and just — by investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration and smart justice reforms this year.
In early December, a window into the myriad harms our prison system inflicts on Vermonters was blown open by Seven Days' Paul Heinz, who exposed longstanding allegations of rape and assault by correctional officers at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF), Vermont's only women's prison. Senior officials knew about the abuses and did not intervene, allowing them to continue for years.
A few days after that story broke, Vermont inmate Kenneth Johnson died in prison in Newport. Johnson was a black man in a state that incarcerates black men at one of the highest rates in the country. One witness reported that for hours before he died, Johnson struggled to breathe and pleaded for medical attention.
Later the same week, VTDigger reported that Vermont would have to come up with an additional $1.3 million to cover the costs of sending 273 people to a private prison in Mississippi. State taxpayers now pay the notorious private prison corporation CoreCivic $7 million annually to incarcerate Vermonters out of state.
Taken as a whole, these reports exposed the inhumanity of incarceration and Vermont's continuing failure to invest in people over prisons. Profound changes in institutional culture and prison conditions are clearly needed. But the fact remains that the most effective way to prevent more injustices like these is for Vermont to follow through on its commitment to decarceration.
Fortunately, with some help, Vermont has identified one more avenue for doing just that. Going largely unnoticed in the midst of so many scandals, in late December a shocking report on Vermont's justice system, authored by the nonpartisan Council of State Governments (CSG) and based on an exhaustive review of available data, was presented to state officials. The report's findings are damning.
For one thing, after a decade in decline, Vermont's prison population is again increasing. One of the main drivers, according to CSG? An excessive number of revocations of "community supervision." That's shorthand for a system designed to release incarcerated Vermonters — through parole, probation, and furlough — while maintaining strict control over their freedom.
Turns out, no state is harsher than Vermont in administering a program intended to reduce incarceration and improve outcomes. You heard that right: Vermont's opaque community supervision system has the highest revocation rates in the country — nearly 80 percent. Rather than help people re-enter the community, as it was meant to do, community supervision has created a revolving door, leading people back into incarceration, not out of it.
Of note, 70 percent of the revocations are not for new crimes but rather for "technical violations" like lacking adequate housing, or curfew violations. Coincidentally, the number of people whose furlough was revoked for technical violations in 2019 (274) is almost identical to the number we currently imprison out of state (273).
Think about that: in a state that values community, invests in people, and believes in second chances, we have the most "punitive" community supervision system in the country.
This failed system impacts hundreds of people every year, in addition to the 6,000 Vermont children with an incarcerated parent. Reform could change countless lives and reduce our prison population significantly.
CSG's report should be a wakeup call to anyone who thought Vermont had exhausted the possibilities for decarceration. That was unfortunately the view of the last two DOC commissioners, who concluded the ACLU's stated goal of reducing the prison population by at least half was not "realistic." Hopefully that view is not shared by the next commissioner.
Based on CSG's findings alone — and the fact that we already incarcerate almost 25 percent fewer Vermonters than we did a decade ago — a 50 percent reduction is well within reach. Bail, sentencing, and other smart reforms could further reduce the number of people in our prisons and end our reliance on out of state prisons.
The good news is that for all the problems facing Vermont's justice system, the path forward — investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration — is becoming clearer every day, and Vermont lawmakers are poised to turn CSG's findings into legislation this session.
The ACLU, our allies, and Vermonters across the state will be supporting ambitious reforms in 2020 and beyond, to ensure that Vermont invests in people, not prisons.
James Lyall is the executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.
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