Vermont’s prison reforms tamp down incarceration rates

Gov. Peter Shumlin appears at a press conference with Administrative Judge Amy Davenport. Photo by Taylor Dobbs

Gov. Peter Shumlin appears at a press conference with Administrative Judge Amy Davenport. Photo by Taylor Dobbs

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.

Taylor Dobbs

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  • Christian Noll

    The state of Vermont should have about 1,600 inmates in our state total. that’s what we had in 2007 and its what we should have NOW, today in 2012.

    For that to happen, more money needs to be placed in those “Programs and Services” which a fair portion of those inmates actually need.

    Sentencing “non-violent” offenders with alternative sanctions to jail-time, isn’t exactly “innovation” but rather something we’ve known about for a long time.

    Taking five steps backwards, then two steps forward for some is “progress.”

    For me its still three steps backwards.

  • Amelia Silver

    Where are the alternative programs to incarceration in Bennington County? what funding has gone into them? Housing. education, job training, drug treatment–these are profoundly lacking in our community, and nothing has happened in recent memory to reverse the tide. I’m glad that these programs are getting lip service, a least, but show me the money.

  • Kathy Callaghan

    Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito deserves a lot of the credit for the success of the war on recidivism. In one of the most difficult jobs in State government, he has done an outstanding job, often in the face of opposition from one contingent or another. Yet he has kept a steady hand on the wheel and the results are showing. Thank you, Commissioner Pallito!

    • Christian Noll

      Kathy thank you.

      I’m all for giving credit to our commissioner Andy Pallito.

      I may humbly differ in opinion that our Vermont Commissioner of Corrections has less to do with recidivism than the types of laws we have in our legislature and HOW those laws are enforced.

      Its interesting to see how state governments process, package and disseminate information to their constituents. It doesn’t always project the most accurate of pictures.

      The total Vermont inmate population is still far disproportionate to what many would consider normal for its population and crime rate.

      If we could continue the downward reduction of a few hundred inmates to below 1,600 for the entire state that would be one thing. But if our inmate population grows so significantly over a ten to twenty year period that a reduction of a few hundred inmates every five to seven years still leaves us with a large growth in population; you know its time to look a little closer.

      The over-all upward trend in the Vermont inmate population over the past tweny years has seen periods which some have termed as: “Spiraling out of control” and I can see why.

      I would also recommend to not reference the “Rate of Recidivism” as a “WAR.” Americans tend to use this word a little too much lately. As if to glamourize, justify and promote our “Post 9/11” imperial weight. “Wars” on Drugs, Terror, recidivism; slow it down a little with the “Wars.”

      I’m all for giving credit where credit is due. Its just that I’m not so sure we’d call this a “Success” just yet.

      There are still many changes that would benefit the Vermont Tax payer with regards to the Department of Corrections.

      So keep your “steady hand on the wheel” Commissioner Pallito.

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