State Rep. Steve Howard, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, is splitting with Peter Shumlin on his prisoner release plan, saying Vermont shouldn't let nonviolent offenders out of jail until there are more treatment facilities ready to receive them.
Howard (pictured) made the comments in a wide-ranging interview with Seven Days today over coffee at Mirabelles cafe in Burlington.
Howard agrees with Shumlin, the state Senate president and Democratic nominee for governor, that health care and corrections are the two big "budget busters" in Vermont state government. But he said the state should find other ways to cut corrections costs, "not by releasing prisoners."
"I wouldn't agree with Sen. Shumlin on that plan," Howard said. "I live in Rutland. I started a neighborhood association because of an increase in crime. I don't necessarily agree with his approach 100 percent."
Shumlin has called for cutting $40 million annually from the Department of Corrections budget by transitioning 780 nonviolent offenders from jail into community programs for mental illness and substance abuse.
Shumlin's plan has become the most divisive issue in the gubernatorial campaign so far, with Dubie saying in a new radio ad that "Shumlin's plan would turn drug dealers and child pornographers out on the street long before their sentences were served." State Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, fired back today, slamming Dubie for using "Willie Horton"-style scare tactics.
Howard said Vermont communities like Rutland, Barre, Burlington and St. Albans need more drug treatment facilities before prisoners can be let out of jail.
"Don't release people until the infrastructure is in the communities that will help solve the problem that got them into trouble in the first place," Howard said. "We don't have that."
Howard stressed that Shumlin is "right" that the ballooning corrections budget is a problem and that Vermont's recidivism rate is too high. But he adds, "I don't think we can do it as fast as he wants to do it until we have invested in the infrastructure in the communities."
Asked whether he thought the corrections department could cut $40 million a year, Howard said he wasn't sure they could do it "right away" but predicted the state would see savings on that order if more transitional facilities were in place.
"I share [Shumlin's] sentiment, but not the policy," Howard said.