Vermont’s prison population is on the decline, reversing a trend that led a 2007 study by the Pew Center on the States to project a 26 percent increase by 2018.
In a press conference at the Statehouse on Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin said Vermont’s current corrections population totals 2,059, significantly below the 2,418 projected by the Pew study.
“We had a crisis,” he said, “and we came together, with Pew, with the Council on State Governments, and used Vermont as an example of how we could use innovative public policy to win the war on recidivism.”
Between 1997 and 2008, Vermont’s prison population went up 92.7 percent, from 1,143 to 2,202. Violent crimes increased during that period as well, by 13.5 percent.
The jump in incarcerations was in part the result of an increase in the number of non-violent offenders who were sent to jail. The Pew Center predicted that trend would continue.
Shumlin said the key to lowering the incarceration rate is breaking the cycle of crime among non-violent offenders.
“We are winning this war on recidivism by a very thoughtful approach of ensuring that we have the preventive programs in our communities – drug and alcohol counseling, housing, education, job training, internships – to ensure that we stop the revolving door back into prison,” Shumlin said.
The “war” began in 2008, when the Legislature steered more money toward treatment and rehabilitation. In 2011 the War on Recidivism Act provided even stronger legislative backing for treatment, rehabilitation and other alternatives to incarceration while providing prisoners an opportunity to reintegrate into their communities.
Richard Jerome of the Pew Center on the States said Vermont was on the forefront of a national trend in prison reform.
“We’re finding in states across the country this idea of really focusing on research-based strategies to address corrections and sentencing and find better ways to use our public safety dollars,” he said.
Jerome said states that find ways to get a better return on their public safety dollars “are cutting corrections costs and cutting crime.”
From a judicial standpoint, the strategy hinges on a new approach to sentencing, said Administrative Judge Amy Davenport.
“Sentencing to the risk is a very different way of thinking about sentencing and how we use resources in a way that helps ensure that we reduce crime in Vermont,” she said.
The risk-based sentencing approach, paired with community resources for non-violent offenders, offers judges more options when handing down sentences. Non-violent offenders who pose a low risk to the community but may need to be rehabilitated can be sentenced accordingly — without entering the prison system.
While Vermont has reduced the overall prison population, the state is incarcerating more violent offenders who pose a risk to their communities, according to Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Today we’re locking up more violent offenders, more sex offenders than ever before, which is what our goal was: to leave precious prison space for violent offenders,” Sears said.