Last week, the Vermont Senate unanimously approved legislation to shrink the cost of housing inmates in Vermont and reduce the likelihood that they will end up behind bars again. The bill, dubbed “The War on Recidivism Act,” spells out a variety of new approaches for curbing crime and dealing with low-risk offenders, including alternatives to imprisonment such as in-home confinement. If approved, the bill would save the Vermont Department of Corrections an estimated $1.6 million annually.
Keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison obviously eliminates the expense of housing, feeding and clothing them. But how much is that worth, exactly? For years, Vermonter taxpayers have been told the cost of housing an inmate at an in-state prison is roughly double that of sending one out of state — on average, $50,000 per year in Vermont versus $24,000 at out-of-state facilities, such as those in Kentucky, Arizona and Massachusetts.
Applying that logic, it should be cheaper to send prisoners out of state. But the DOC now claims bringing those inmates back to Vermont would save the state money.
Has the cost of housing prisoners at out-of-state facilities changed that dramatically?
Not at all, says Ira Sollace, the DOC’s director of finance. As he explains, when the DOC reports that it costs $50,000 per year per inmate, that number reflects all the fixed costs of operating a prison, such as health care, payroll for corrections officers and staff, program services, insurance, and the maintenance and upkeep of the facilities themselves.
However, when the state exceeds its prison capacity — there are slightly more than 1600 beds in the system — the DOC must “buy a bed” and send inmates elsewhere. Typically, those who get sent out of state are usually serving longer sentences and have fewer health care needs.
Out-of-state beds are still cheaper than in-state beds, Sollace explains, but only when Vermont doesn’t have the capacity within its own system. “So, if we have the capacity, it’s better to use our own beds than to buy additional capacity.”
The in-state cost per prisoner is also a factor of the “density” of each facility, he adds. As with any business model, the higher the volume, the lower the per-unit cost. For example, at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, which has a large inmate population, the cost per inmate runs about $40,000 per year, Sollace reports, versus at St. Johnsbury’s smaller Northeast Regional facility, where the per-inmate cost is $55,000 annually.
Vermont is the second most peaceful state in the nation, and its crime rate held steady between 1996 and 2006. During the same time period, though, the state’s prison population doubled — a consequence of Vermont’s particularly high rates of incarceration and recidivism; 50 percent of offenders who left Vermont prisons in 2003 had been convicted of a new crime by 2006. To cope with that increase, corrections spending jumped 129 percent, from $48 million in 1996 to $130 million in 2008.
That same year, the Pew Center on the States projected that if Vermont’s incarceration trends continue, the state’s prison population would jump 23 percent by 2018, resulting in additional costs of between $82 million and $206 million. Since then, Vermont’s prison population growth has slowed. In the last year, it actually declined.
With fewer offenders behind bars, does that mean vacancies in Vermont prisons? Fewer out-of-state beds to buy?
That’s the goal, says Sollace. Nonetheless, in January the DOC put out a request for proposals to house as many as 500 inmates classified as “minimum, medium and close-custody offenders” at out-of-state facilities starting on June 1. That’s when one of the state’s current contracts — with Corrections Corporation of America — is set to expire. CCA is the biggest for-profit prison corporation in the U.S.
Sollace cannot comment on the terms of the new two-year contract, which, according to the request for proposals, will be inked any day now. Nor can he say which entity it’s with or whether the deal will require Vermont to export a minimum number of inmates each year. The state’s current CCA contract requires that a minimum of 400 inmates are housed at Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, Ky.
Sollace says having such a contract in place is vital, even if it contradicts the DOC’s goal of keeping Vermonters in Vermont.
“We always want to have that relief valve, because you never know what’s going to happen,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to fill those 500 beds … We’d rather spend that money in the Vermont economy than in the Kentucky economy.”