The state will not appeal a court decision that deemed it unconstitutional to send male, but not female, inmates out of state, state officials say.
However, that decision has renewed a conversation in Montpelier on how to reduce the state’s reliance on out-of-state prisons in general.
In a lower court ruling this summer, Judge Helen Toor ordered the Department of Corrections to return Michael Carpenter, a prisoner sent to Kentucky, to Vermont.
The state houses about 500 inmates in Kentucky and Arizona at facilities run by the private company Corrections Corporation of America, because Vermont facilities are overcrowded.
The judge ruled it violated Carpenter’s constitutional right to equal protection because he was not able to visit his children the same way as female inmates who are not sent out of state.
DOC officials, however, told lawmakers last week that on the advice of their attorneys they do not plan to appeal the case because it only applies to Carpenter and a Supreme Court ruling might include a broader mandate, such as an order to return all out-of-state inmates.
“The better direction is make a couple of the changes on the parenting piece,” DOC Commissioner Andy Pallito told the Corrections Oversight Committee last week.
Carpenter has meanwhile been returned to Vermont and is living at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, according to the state’s online offender locator database.
In addition to asking fathers more questions about their children, the state is also trying to re-establish a broken video conferencing system that allows out-of-state prisoners to “visit” with their families, DOC officials said Monday.
Sears has asked the DOC for a list of criteria for sending a prisoner out of state. According to court documents from the Carpenter case, a person must be ineligible for work camp, cleared medically and not involved in any prison programming.
The practice of sending Vermont prisoners to private prisons out-of-state is controversial.
At the Corrections Oversight Committee meeting last week, lawmakers discussed the ruling and how to reduce the state’s dependence on out-of-state prisons.
Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate committee that handles judicial matters, pointed out that the state has already done a lot to decrease its out-of-state population.
“I don’t think we have done a good enough job publicizing the progress that we’ve made over the past five or six years,” Sears said.
Sears said he would prefer that prisoners be kept in state, but finding the money, location and community support for a new or expanded facility would be hard, he said.
Meanwhile, the activism group Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, is working on a proposal for a bill to introduce next year to bring out-of-state prisoners home over the next three years.
If a bill to bring prisoners home was introduced in his committee, Sears said he would review it.
Sears’ counterpart in the House of Representatives, who is also on the oversight committee, is opposed to sending prisoners out of state.
“I don’t think we should be sending folks out of state,” said Rep. Bill Lippert, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform is led by Suzi Wizowaty, who last year retired from the Legislature, where she served on Lippert’s committee.
Lawmakers from both houses as well as state officials say an alternative justice bill passed last session, now known as Act 195, will also help reduce the prison population.
“I think the department is doing a pretty remarkable job. I think the pretrial piece has been the missing link in this system for a long time,” Pallito said.
The DOC also recently received a $1 million grant to work on reducing recidivism.
Another barrier to reducing the population is that many prisoners are in jail simply because they lack proper housing. There are 241 inmates in Vermont that are legally allowed to be released but because of a variety of complicating circumstances, have nowhere to go.