Gov. Peter Shumlin kicked off a criminal justice reform conference at Vermont Law School Friday morning by calling current criminal justice practices a "miserable failure" in reducing opiate use and making communities safer.
Speaking to a crowd of lawyers, judges and law enforcement officials, the governor urged them to develop alternatives to arrest and incarceration that can be implemented across the state. Building new prison beds to handle an inmate population that has spiked in the past 20 years, Shumlin said, is not the answer.
'If we don't get it right soon it will change the quality of life in Vermont. We've got the smartest minds in the state here working on a problem that we are botching pretty bad," Shumlin said. "We can't build our way out of it. No way. I am open as a governor to taking risks, to change the parameters and assumptions we have always made so we can turn this around, not tomorrow, not next week, but right now."
The Innovative Criminal Justice Practices in Vermont conference drew around 100 people from all parts of the judicial system (and some legislators), many of whom have implemented small reform programs that they hope will spread statewide.
Rutland Police Chief Jim Baker, the former commander of the Vermont State Police, told the crowd that when he arrived in Rutland in 2012 he was "mortified by the depth of the opiate problem," in the community.
To combat the problem, Baker said his department has emphasized treatment and statistics, working with analysts and other agencies to target problem neighborhoods and measure their progress.
"The reality is we're not arresting, we're not using force, to get out of this," Baker said. "We policed the city very hard — it's not going to work anymore."
Later, Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan gave an overview of his widely admired Rapid Intervention Community Court, which takes non-violent offenders with substance abuse and mental health problems out of criminal court and into community-based programs.
Many in the Vermont legal community have spoken of replicating that program in other counties.
"This is not a criminal justice problem, this is a health issue," State Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, told the crowd. "We are creating criminals out of our young folks who have a health issue."