Cassondra Warney, David D'Amora and Ellen Whelan-Wuest of the Council of State Governments at the Statehouse on Wednesday
Updated at 12:44 p.m.
The Vermont Senate is poised to pursue an ambitious overhaul of the state's system for returning prisoners to the community.
Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said Wednesday that he'll seek to enact a series of reforms recommended earlier that day by a national research group charged with studying incarceration in Vermont. The proposals include replacing the state's complicated furlough system with one that would automatically release many nonviolent offenders upon serving their minimum sentence.
Such an overhaul could cut the state's prison population by up to 135 people and save as much as $14 million over five years, according to the Council of State Governments' Justice Center, which issued the recommendations.
"They're gonna be tough to implement, but my committee is ready to get going," Sears said. "We'll try to implement as much as we can."
At the request of Gov. Phil Scott and the legislature, the Justice Center spent six months studying the state's corrections system and analyzing incarceration data in an effort dubbed "Justice Reinvestment II." (Vermont’s original Justice Reinvestment process, which took place more than a decade ago, saved the state millions and reduced its prison population, according to the Justice Center.)
Representatives of the organization presented their latest findings Wednesday at the Statehouse to a working group comprised of members of the Scott administration, the legislature, the judiciary and advocacy groups.
The Justice Center concluded that the state's supervised release system is needlessly complex — with 32 different legal statuses — and fails to prevent former inmates from ending up back in prison.
During a three-year period, the researchers found, 78 percent of Vermont prison admissions were for those who violated the terms of their furlough, probation or parole — not for committing new crimes. Seventy-seven percent of those on furlough who were sent back to prison committed "technical violations" such as losing housing, failing to stay employed, violating curfew or using drugs or alcohol.
Though Vermont's furlough program was designed to grant early release to qualifying inmates and ease their transition back into the community, its strict rules have had the opposite effect, trapping them in a cycle of reincarceration. The Justice Center recommended scaling back and restructuring the program so that participants face fewer restrictions, have more support and enjoy greater legal protections.
Currently, ex-inmates often spend more than six months on furlough before they are granted parole, a more lenient status. The Justice Center recommended that those who have not committed a violent crime — roughly one-third of the prison population — be granted parole as soon as they reach their minimum sentence, so long as they are in good standing.
The organization also called for better behavioral health services, risk reduction programming and housing options for those leaving prison. And it said the state should improve its data collection systems and address racial disparities in the incarcerated population.
Sen. Dick Sears, center, listens to a Council of State Governments presentation Wednesday at the Statehouse
Vermont's prison system is designed for 1,100 inmates, but it currently houses nearly 1,500. That's not including another 300 who are sent to a private prison in Mississippi at a daily cost of $73 per inmate, or $7.3 million a year. The Justice Center estimated that its reforms would reduce that population by 106 to 135 people in the next five years, which would save the state a total of $11 million to $14 million.
According to Sears, the key is to plow that money back into programs that further improve post-release services. "If you reinvest the savings, I think you'll have better public safety outcomes," he said. "If you fail to reduce the savings, then I think you won't."
The Senate Judiciary Committee expects to begin drafting legislation on Friday that will incorporate the Justice Center's recommendations, Sears said, and approve it by the end of next week.
Rep. Alice Emmons (D-Springfield), who chairs the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, said she looks forward to taking up the Senate bill later this session. “At this point in time I really want to see more of the language, but I think they’ve come in with some real feasible alternatives and suggestions to look at,” she said.
Though several members of the Scott administration took part in the Justice Reinvestment process, the governor has yet to review its recommendations, according to his spokesperson, Rebecca Kelley.
Some criminal justice reform groups hope the legislature will consider measures beyond what the Justice Center recommended. James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, said he understands why Justice Reinvestment II focused on community supervision program.
“It’s important, however, to recognize that this report doesn’t address other critically needed reforms — like sentencing, bail and greater prosecutor accountability — that could further reduce the number of people in our prisons and improve outcomes for our communities,” Lyall said.