Out-of-state prisons will be a reality in the Vermont corrections system until the state reduces its prison population, Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito said Tuesday.
Prison sentences for nonviolent crimes and people who might benefit instead from substance abuse treatment contribute to the overcrowding, he said.
“Until we decide that we’re going to put people in jail less … we are in the out-of-state business,” Pallito said in an interview.
Discussion about Vermont’s practice of sending about 500 prisoners to facilities in Kentucky and Arizona renewed this year after news broke in January that a wing of 205 Vermont prisoners in Kentucky were on lockdown after a series of assaults and general unrest.
The lockdown eased gradually and ended Feb. 4. The Department has asked private contractor Corrections Corp. of America (CCA,) to increase security in the Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, Ky., a facility with an especially relaxed atmosphere, Pallito said.
The commissioner said he knows that some in the Statehouse want to stop contracting with private prisons. But until the state decides to stop sending prisoners out of state, it will be necessary, he said.
“For me, the decision is whether or not we’re going to send prisoners out of state,” he said.
Pallito said he doesn’t differentiate between private and state prisons, as long as they provide good service at a good cost.
“Is there anybody else out there who is able to provide us with 500 beds, varying levels of security and one to two sites?” he said.
When it cast a net for prison contractors, the state had few bidders, he said. CCA was not the only bidder last time, but was the only qualified one, he said.
CCA is in the first year of a two-year extension of an original two-year contract. The entire contract is for $61 million.
In all, DOC has an average daily population of 2,078 incarcerated people, according to fiscal year 2013 data, the most recent available. That is a 9.5 percent increase in the past decade, according to the DOC FY15 budget presentation.
There are also about 430 people detained in Vermont corrections facilities as they await trial, according to the budget presentation.
The 500 inmates sent out of state is down from a high of 589 in fiscal year 2012, the report says.
Rep. Suzi Wizowaty, D-Burlington, for several years has filed an unsuccessful bill to stop sending prisoners out of state.
She agreed Tuesday with Pallito’s contention that the number of prisoners could be reduced by not sending low-level offenders to prison.
“He is absolutely right. We need to stop making harsher penalties and new crimes every year,” Wizowaty said.
The state should focus on alternatives to incarceration, which are more effective at reducing recidivism, she said.
The DOC recidivism rate has decreased by 7.1 percent in the past nine years, according to the most recent data available. In calendar year 2009 the rate was 50.2 percent for all releases of sentenced inmates, according to DOC.
The Department of Corrections has various programs aimed at reducing recidivism and reintegrating prisoners back into society. Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a bill S.295, that could help reduce the number of people in prison by offering alternatives such as substance abuse treatment.
Wizowaty said that’s a good idea, except that the bill also includes harsher penalties for certain types of burglary.
“If your biggest concern is public safety we should be paying attention to what works,” she said.
Pallito also pointed to S.295 as a way to seek alternatives to incarceration.
Another measure that could help DOC keep people out of prison is a federal grant the department is seeking. The application for the seven-figure recidivism reduction grant is due in June, Pallito said.
Pallito pointed out that not incarcerating low-level offenders wouldn’t entirely solve the overcrowding problem. There are 500 prisoners sent out of state but only a few hundred of the state’s total convicts were sentenced for low-level offenses, he said.
The CCA contract expires in 16 months. Pallito said CCA seems motivated to continue the security changes that came as a result of the lockdown through the end of the contract.
The state will then put out a new request for proposals, he said.
Pallito said Maine at one point offered to house Vermont inmates throughout its county facilities but it would be too hard to keep track of Vermont prisoners because they would be so spread out, he said.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Tuesday defended S.295’s burglary provision, and another increasing penalties for heroin trafficking.
Sears said his constituents are scared of home invasions, said to be increasingly common as addicts’ steal to pay for their drug habits.
The Judiciary Committee is also considering another bill, S.195, that would create a new crime of aggravated disorderly conduct.
Sears said he believes alternative justice programs are vital, but it is important to be realistic about Vermont’s capacity to house its prisoners.
“If they don’t want people sent to private prisons then build a prison in Vermont,” Sears said.
He said reducing the prison population wouldn’t likely get it down to the number of beds in Vermont, which is about 1,600.
Bram Kranichfeld, executive director of the State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs’ Association, said in a statement Tuesday that prosecutors share the goal of reducing recidivism.
“The State’s Attorneys strive to ensure that the outcomes of the criminal justice system are fair and equitable and that our communities are protected,” he said.
Each case is treated differently, he said. Some alleged offenders can benefit from treatment whereas other high-risk offenders may need to be removed from society.
“The services offered through pre-trial programs like Chittenden (County’s) Rapid Intervention Community Court program, and envisioned by S.295, give prosecutors and judges more information and more options to craft more effective outcomes,” he said.
Stay on top of all of Vermont's criminal justice news. Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on courts and crime.