Editor’s note: This commentary is by state Rep. Suzi Wizowaty of Burlington, who is clerk of the Vermont House Judiciary Committee. This was first published on her blog, www.suziwizowaty.com.
As most people know by now, the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country in the world. We have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. This is a result of public policies that are also familiar to most people at this point. This is key: public policies.
Too often in Vermont we point the finger at the Vermont Department of Corrections, as if they make the laws, arrest the lawbreakers, bring the charges and are responsible for sentencing. We might as well hold them responsible for the lack of affordable housing, the failure of schools to succeed with every child, the waiting lists for treatment of addiction and all the other institutional inadequacies in the state.
In truth, we all share the responsibility for the over-incarceration of our citizens. Elected officials have played on the public’s fears and insisted on harsher penalties. Police have targeted certain populations over others, resulting in the disproportionate jailing of minorities. Prosecutors have inflated charges in order to get longer sentences. Judges have issued harsher penalties than required by law to make a point. Probation and parole officers have responded more punitively than necessary to violations of conditions of release. And we, the public, have gone along with all of it.
If we want a criminal justice system that reduces crime, rather than simply punishing and creating more crime, we need to rethink much of what we’re doing.
Of course not everyone in any of these groups takes this punitive approach. And even those who do are likely just trying to do the right thing. Many people still believe this is the best way to respond to crime.
But it’s not.
Because it doesn’t reduce crime. If we want a criminal justice system that reduces crime, rather than simply punishing and creating more crime, we need to rethink much of what we’re doing. We have decades of evidence now about what doesn’t work: longer sentences, over-interventions that don’t match risk or need. We also know what does: sentences that do address risk and need, supportive programming including education and job training, and for most people shorter sentences and alternatives to incarceration.
All of us have a role to play in changing this system: legislators, judges, prosecutors, DOC staff, and most of all the public. When Vermonters insist that tax dollars be spent more wisely, when we insist on a more effective criminal justice system that reduces crime and supports the restoration of relationships and communities, we will all be better off.