Advocates pitch plan to bring prisoners home

A criminal justice reform group is hatching a plan to bring out-of-state prisoners home in the next three years by reducing the prison population 10 percent each year.

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, led by state Rep. Suzi Wizowaty, wants to eliminate the state’s reliance on private, out-of-state prison contractors by sending fewer people to prison and making it easier for some prisoners to win their release.

“We want Vermonters who have to be in prison to be in prison at home where they can maintain connections with their family members,” Wizowaty said. Being close to home increases inmates’ success of reintegrating into the community when they return, she said.

Andy Pallito, commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said he agrees with the premise of ending the state’s contract with Corrections Corporation of America.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito. Photo by Josh Larkin

Department of Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito.  File photo by Josh Larkin/VTDigger

But Pallito said he hasn’t seen a concrete plan that will accomplish that as quickly as Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform would like. There are about 2,050 prisoners in Vermont and 480 in Kentucky and Arizona combined.

There are several prongs to the reform group’s plan. It calls for a shorter contract with CCA, more inmates released for medical care, more transitional housing so inmates can be released sooner, and more alternatives to incarceration, such as restorative justice panels.

When CCA’s contract expires in June, Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform wants the state to pursue a one-year contract with a one-year optional extension, instead of the standard two years with two one-year optional extensions.

The group wants to introduce the concept of compassionate release, a program used in federal prisons whereby a judge grants prisoners their release for medical reasons. It is different than medical furlough, a program DOC already uses.

Advocates also want to reduce the number of people who remain in jail because they have nowhere to go once they’ve served their sentences. The state lacks adequate transitional housing programs. There are 216 inmates in prison who are eligible for release, but do not have places to live.

The group also wants to increase the use of alternatives to incarceration, especially for nonviolent offenders. Alternatives include home detention for people awaiting trial, and restorative justice panels for crimes such as simple assault. The goal of those panels is for offenders to talk with victims and other community members to repair relationships.

Vermont has the second-highest percentage in the nation (11.9 percent) of prisoners age 55 or older, according to a July study by the Pew Charitable Trust.

It also has the second-highest average health care spending per inmate, $11,000.

Nationwide, the number of people in state prisons has declined over the past three years, after reaching a high of 1 in 100 adults behind bars in 2008, according to a Pew study.

The advocates started a local push as part of a national campaign called Locked Up & Shipped Away, based on a study about the four states that send inmates to private prisons across state lines.

Once VCJR finalizes the plan internally, it plans to release it and collect signatures from Vermonters who support it, Wizowaty said. Then it will seek support from the Legislature and administration.

“A lot of people agree with this in principle, but we can’t just go along doing the same thing we’ve always done,” Wizowaty said.

Pallito agreed Vermont should wean itself off CCA and said he supports many of advocates’ ideas, but doesn’t know if VCJR’s proposals would reduce the population enough to eliminate the need for out-of-state beds.

“I don’t know that it’s possible to box it into 10 percent a year for three years,” he said.

Meanwhile, the state is working on long-term strategies for reducing the number of Vermont inmates, including a new pretrial services program, a potential $3 million recidivism reduction grant and investments in transitional housing.

A director for the new statewide pretrial services program starts next week, Pallito said. That program, which the Legislature created last year, aims to send more would-be inmates to mental health and substance abuse programs.

Vermont’s DOC is a finalist for a federal grant to help reduce the number of offenders who return to crime. The state expects to know by the end of the month whether it will receive $3 million for the recidivism effort.

Pallito supports the idea of compassionate release because it can be good to have a judge decide such cases, Pallito said.

Wizowaty said DOC should change a practice she has heard about which requires that inmates be released into the county where their offense was committed.

Pallito said that is not a policy, but the department’s furlough directive suggests inmates return to the county where they are from, unless there are safety concerns about the victim.

About the CCA contract, Pallito said typically contracts are drafted for two years with two one-year optional extensions. It would be an administrative burden to format the contract differently, he said, pointing out that there are “out” clauses for the state built into the contract, and contracts are always subject to available funding.

Laura Krantz

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