Why Criminal Justice Reform Must Be a Priority in 2016

This piece first appeared as a commentary on VtDigger, January 6, 2016

With the Legislature starting this week, pressure starts to build: Which of the many compelling issues will the committees take on and which will languish until another year? What does the public most want? What can do the most good?

Here is why legislators should make improving public safety (i.e. “criminal justice reform”) a priority:

First, the current system wastes taxpayer dollars — because it is ineffective. It is a complete waste of money to lock up people who don’t need to be locked up for reasons of public safety. Not only is this irresponsible and indefensible public policy, it often makes things worse. Recidivism rates depend on what you’re measuring, but by any measure, a system that’s supposed to “correct” and instead teaches additional criminal behavior (thus the name “crime school”), and returns a third to over half of its participants to jail within a few years cannot be considered a success.

Second, the current system inflicts needless suffering. While government can and should do many things to help citizens, it’s even more important that government do no harm. And yet within the criminal justice system, representatives of the state create harm every day; opportunities are built into the system and safeguards are few. Every year, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Vermonters suffer from the racial bias evident in traffic stops, the lack of “geographic justice” among state’s attorneys, the plea bargaining system, the indignities and injustices inflicted behind bars, the “Catch 22” of many release conditions, and the punitive behavior of some probation officers. All this is done in our name and must stop.

Third, there are alternatives to the current system that will improve public safety and save taxpayer dollars. Continuing to throw money down the drain when there are proven alternatives that work better — particularly in a time of painfully tight budgets — is unconscionable.

Here are three things legislators can (arguably must) do:

First, refuse to increase penalties or create new crimes. Remember that the evidence is clear: increased penalties do nothing to deter crime. And longer sentences not only waste money but result in worse outcomes. The evidence of the last decade indicates that the length of a sentence is actually inversely proportional to the good that it does. And newly criminalizing a behavior does not prevent it; it merely sweeps more people into a system that is all but guaranteed to harm, rather than help, them.

Second, pass bills introduced this session in the House by Reps. Burke, Rachelson and others, and in the Senate by Sen. Balint and others that address current systemic problems. While the entire system needs transforming, some changes in the meantime will save money and — again — improve public safety. Look for bills that provide for releasing older inmates who pose low risk (“if the risk is low, let them go”), that allow release of inmates who are eligible for release whether or not they have “approved” housing, that prohibit conditions of release (probation, furlough and parole) from restricting otherwise legal behaviors, and that eliminate the practice of yanking someone back into jail for things like having a beer or missing an appointment (“technical violations”). Look for bills that advance the work already underway to ensure fair and impartial policing (i.e. that address racial bias). All of these will save taxpayer dollars and minimize incarceration. The point is, incarceration is an expensive, ineffective, risky tool, to be used sparingly and only when truly necessary.

Third, consider the larger question: what is the most effective response to interpersonal harm? Be aware that while reforms to the current, undeniably flawed system are necessary, they can only go so far. What is needed is a major overhaul of the criminal code and a rethinking of accountability and punishment. Pay attention to the alternatives. Offering people with serious mental health or addiction issues the opportunity for diversion to treatment makes good sense. So does using a restorative justice model whenever possible. (Restorative justice offers true accountability. Punishment actually precludes accountability.) Shorter sentences — much shorter sentences — and a system that offers an intervention with a healing and supportive, not punitive, environment make sense.

Every year the state faces a host of compelling needs. It’s not often, however, that a national, bipartisan conversation about reforms in a particular field emerges so clearly. The recommendations above would reduce the number of people incarcerated by enough to bring back everyone currently out of state, saving $6 million. That would be a good start. Let’s make it a priority.

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform
PO Box 8753, Burlington, VT 05402
(802) 540-0440

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Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform 
is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

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