Editor’s note: This commentary is by state Rep. Suzi Wizowaty of Burlington, who is clerk of the Vermont House Judiciary Committee. She is not running for re-election.Most people know by now that the U.S. contains 25 percent of the world’s inmates although only 5 percent of the world’s population. And most Vermonters know we have the same over-incarceration problem as the rest of the country. We have sentenced to prison more people than we have room to house, and therefore we send our overflow (500 or so men) out of state, where a privately owned, for-profit prison corporation houses — some would say “warehouses” — them for us.
Recently, this out-of-state placement has gained more attention. Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform has contributed with its campaign, Locked Up & #ShippedAway. But the media attention tends to focus on the Department of Corrections as the source of the problem, and this is a mistake. It’s true that DOC has some limited authority to release people on furlough under certain circumstances, but it’s important to remember that DOC simply takes in the people that judges send to them. Judges and state’s attorneys bear much more responsibility for the state’s over-incarceration.
But look further: while judges and state’s attorneys have a certain amount of discretion, and some are more punitive than others, they are all simply carrying out the laws that the Legislature has passed. As a state legislator the past six years, I have repeatedly observed and participated in criminalizing additional activity and increasing penalties for already existing crimes. And why do we do this, even when we know it’s a futile, even ludicrous, approach to public safety? (Nobody ever decided against robbing a house because the penalty was now 30 years instead of 25.) Because the public, at least in theory, demands it.
We can easily reduce the inmate population by 25 percent in three years, eliminating the need for out-of-state placements. Yes, easily.
In other words, this is not a DOC problem. We are all responsible for the over-incarceration of our citizens that has resulted in out-of-state placements in for-profit prisons. And all of us must create the solution together. Vermonters must stand up and say: This isn’t working. It’s not working to lock up people who’ve committed non-violent crimes who don’t need to be in jail for reasons of public safety. It’s not working to keep people in prison for lack of “appropriate” housing. It’s not working to lock up old people who are sick or debilitated, posing no danger to anyone. It’s not necessary, and it’s not right. We can all think of better ways to spend taxpayer dollars.
If Vermonters demand that our criminal justice system become more fair and effective in reducing crime, we will have fewer people in prison. We can easily reduce the inmate population by 25 percent in three years, eliminating the need for out-of-state placements. Yes, easily. We can change laws, sentencing practices and policies, and reserve incarceration for those for whom there are no other options.
The Legislature, administration and judiciary can base decisions not simply on the desire to punish but on what actually works in most cases to reduce crime — e.g. diversion, treatment for addiction, mental health supports, restorative justice practices, and shorter sentences. We can do this, but it will take acknowledging that we’re all responsible for getting us here and we all have to work together on the solution.