End Unnecessary Incarceration:
March 1, 2017
- Since 1985, Vermont’s incarceration rate has grown 300% for men, and 1,000% for women. And yet crime is at its lowest point since the 1960s.
- This disproportionate incarceration rate, disconnected from the crime rate, is a result of a number of different factors, including the increased criminalization of behavior, policies like mandatory minimums and “habitual offender” statutes, and longer sentences generally.
- Harsher penalties, longer sentences, are now understood to have little impact on public safety—and often are counterproductive. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates in a recent report that 39% of America's prisoners could be released without any risk to public safety.
- Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform is proposing how Vt. can take some initial steps to reduce unnecessary incarceration in Vt.--safely, and relatively quickly.
- Even partial implementation of these recommendations will reduce the prison population enough to bring back the men housed in the for-profit prison owned by GEO Group in Michigan, which will save the state $12 million.
- More important—even more important that saving money—is that reducing unnecessary incarceration will leave us safer, because the evidence is great that imprisoning people who don't need to be in prison leads to worse outcomes.
- And as a collateral benefit, bringing the out-of-state prisoners closer to their families and communities will make it easier for them to maintain the connections that are essential for successful re-integration.
Note: It goes without saying that we are adamantly opposed to the privatization of essential government functions like imprisoning citizens. Private prison corporations, required by law to seek a profit, have a financial interest in an ever-increasing prison population. The state has a conflicting interest in having the smallest number of people incarcerated, to allow more spending on social goods such as education.
Who is in prison unnecessarily? How to address this?
- People held for lack of housing. Nearly 150 Vermonters remain in prison beyond their eligible release date for lack of approved housing, sometimes for months or even years.
• Solution: Remove the requirement for DOC approval.
- Older, low-risk prisoners. Vermont has the second-oldest prison population in the country, and the second-highest health care cost per inmate.
• Solution: Increase parole eligibility ("compassionate release") for older inmates who haven't yet reached their minimum sentence.
- People jailed for a "technical violation." An estimated third of Vermont prisoners are behind bars for a non-criminal violation of their conditions of release.
• Solution: Prohibit incarceration for legal activity, and substitute incentives for punishments to achieve better outcomes.
- People held for lack of bail. Jailing people who can't afford bail discriminates against poor people. Jurisdictions that have eliminated money bail have found no impact on the rate of defendants' showing up.
• Solution: Eliminate monetary bail.
- People charged with or convicted of non-violent offenses--about a third of Vermont's prisoners. Low-level offenders who are sent to jail ("crime school") often lose their jobs and housing, ensuring an even harder time afterward, when they could instead be engaged in an education or job training program, treatment for substance abuse, or reparative community work.
• Solution: Make greater use of alternative responses to non-violent offenses.
Ending unnecessary incarceration should be a top priority for the state—for reasons of both justice and economics. The Dept. of Corrections alone has the power to implement internal policy changes to reduce the prison population by 250 people by June. But long-term “de-carceration” in Vermont requires participation by the legislature, state’s attorneys and the judiciary, and ultimately the mental health system, treatment providers, the community justice network and the public. But we must take action now to end unnecessary incarceration, so that we can begin to make Vermont a safer, more just and healthier state.