Suzi Wizowaty: Pointing the finger - VTDigger
 

Suzi Wizowaty: Pointing the finger

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.

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  • Patrick Cashman

    It’s odd that while splattering responsibility on every one, she never mentions the responsibility of the person who chose to commit the crime(s).

  • Suzi has this right. A thought…
    Bard College Prison Initiative

    http://bpi.bard.edu/commencement-video/

    ​We must try this here with a VT College using the women’s prison in So. Burlington for a start. That facility costs $80,000 per woman per year. Top college tuition in for the VT State Colleges is $15K a year:

    $15,000 tuition
    $20,000 living stipend
    $5,000 admin and drug testing
    $10,000 personal mentor

    Total Cost: $50,000
    Total Savings: $30,000 / inmate /year​

    • Renée Carpenter

      Brilliant!

  • Fred Woogmaster

    In the States Attorney contest In Washington County, we have an opportunity to tweak the paradigm, and to change the tone that has been set over the past many years.

    Scott Williams, opposing a two term incumbent, Tom Kelly, will work to create coalitions through collaborative dialogue. Compassion – coupled with his understanding of the connections between crime, domestic assault, drugs, poverty and the absence of opportunity – will lead to a reduction of incarceration in Washington County.

    Those dangerous to the community will be dealt with accordingly. Mr. Williams’ training and years of service as a Navy Seal represents the “toughness” required for this position.

    Unlike most elected offices in the State of Vermont, states attorneys are elected to four year terms; a most important fact.

  • Julie Tessler

    The State must make a commitment to fully fund mental health and substance abuse services to help people address the underlying issues that often lead to criminal behaviors. This should be incorporated into our planning for health reform and single payer system. We don’t limit access to physical health care for people enrolled in Medicaid, but we do for these conditions. When we fully fund and allow full access to mental health and substance abuse services we will not only achieve mental health parity, we will also reduce tax dollars spent on incarceration and acute health care related to substance abuse, depression and other mental health conditions.

  • Jim Candon

    Suzie does not have this right. It is a myth that Vermont locks up folks that need not be locked up. In fact, incarceration is the last option employed by Vermont judges.
    This is another well designed scheme designed by folks that regard prisoners as victims.

  • Peggy Luhrs

    While i agree with Suzy about the over incarceration in Vermont it is absurd to blame the public for this. I’ve never seen a single demonstration calling for more prisons. It’s more like the Dems trying to keep up with the Republicans. And she totally lets the private prison sytem off the hook. Private prisons are making a profit from incarceration and they push for harsher penalties and more jail time because it is good for business. I did not see the public rise up and demand more jails or that from 1972 until now that we go from 300,000 prisoners to 2,300,000 and outdo the rest of the world in prisoners. No. This is so the work of politicians and their corporate
    connections. The public wants dangerous criminal off the streets true but the war on drugs was a Reagan idea and supported by blue dog dems that has gone way out of control and private prisons with cheap prison labor are a back door to slavery. Politicians could put and end to this if they would have the courage to stand up to the prison industrial complex. But they are no likelier to do this than to stand up to the criminals in the military industrial complex who show everyone that might and theft are the morals of the USA.

    • Fred Woogmaster

      Is it possible for legislators and other public officials with “seats at the table” on corrections issues to hold CCA stock – without public knowledge?

    • Jon Corrigan

      You are aware that 27% of our national prison population consists of illegal aliens, aren’t you? I suppose that’s the cost associated with being the only nation on planet earth that doesn’t care about securing our borders.

  • Howard Ires

    This problem goes beyond prisons. We have created a police state where it is more likely you will be shot by a police officer than a terrorist, where it is more likely that your money will be stolen by a police officer (“Civil Forfeiture”) while you’re driving down I95 than by a bandit. Right now attention is focused on minority victims of the police state, but we are all victims.

    This isn’t the fault of the police – it’s OUR fault – we have abandoned the founding principles of our country. We have sacrificed our basic liberties – to be secure in our homes from unreasonable searches, to be able to travel down the road without having to produce “papers,” to be able to converse and correspond in privacy – in a futile effort to achieve the impossible goal of perfect security.

    Take a look at this website:
    http://www.policestateusa.com/
    it will really open your eyes!

  • Renée Carpenter

    Bringing this discussion back to Vermont, and to the social programs that might prevent at least *some* of the circumstances behind substance abuse, mental health issues, and petty crime: Enhance social safety net programs to assure a minimum income for all or some other way for all basic needs to be met (alleviating some stress for single parent families & giving parents a choice about whether to care for their own children in times of need), assure high quality child care & parent education programs, make accessible the arts and sciences and rich culture of our communities to low income families, make available good paying jobs for all, including entrepreneurship training for teens; safe affordable housing (costs less than housing via corrections over the long term) …

    How do we pay for this? With a tiered income tax policy that is fair and just; a fee on financial transactions (not associated with basic banking, savings, or checking), taxes on big ticket luxury items & vacation homes …

    It’s called “tax justice” when people who have the ability to pay are asked to take fair responsibility so that all people have at least their basic needs met.

    Do I understand the politics of self-interest that impede a shift to these policies? Of course. But when we discuss the ethical depravity of our increasing corrections budget and what some solutions may be to improve the lives of those who–in the eyes of our laws–have made mistakes, we should look a little deeper.

    From this stand point, I agree that we should all take some responsibility. 50 of our wealthiest citizens did this a few years ago, early in Peter Shumlin’s first term as Governor. They said “Tax us,” that they can afford to take care of those less able in the community. These are Vermont’s values that Shumlin lauded early on–that, as a community, we take care of each other.

    The steady years of cuts and level funding of social safety net and other programs since (at least) the Douglas administration (compounded by cute to related federal programs) have yielded an increase of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and the despair that can lead to substance abuse, violence, petty crimes (stealing, check fraud, drug dealing, etc.).

    If you’re not speaking up for tax justice, then–like Representative Wizowaty–I agree that you are a *part* of the problem.

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