The Department of Corrections passed a milestone this week as Vermont’s prison population dropped to its lowest point since 2002.
According to a population count as of Wednesday, the number of Vermonters in correctional facilities dropped to 1,892 – about 350 fewer inmates than there were at the peak in 2010, with 2,248 incarcerated.
“There’s no one thing that’s added up to this, it’s a lot of things,” Andy Pallito, the commissioner of the department, said Thursday.
Crime rates have been improving for some time, Pallito said, while, at the same time the Department of Corrections has been implementing programs that aim to chip away at the incarcerated population. Pallito mentioned a rapid intervention program, as well as a transitional housing initiative that has helped reintegrate inmates into society.
The total number of people involved in the correctional system, including those who are incarcerated, are on probation, and others has been in a steady decline over the past decade.
Still, facility overflow remains an issue the department is dealing with, since the number of people in the prison system still exceeds capacity.
The incarcerated population held in out-of-state facilities dropped to 298 this year — the lowest number since 1999, Pallito said.
The news of the population decline comes days after the department announced that it is changing providers for the out-of-state prison program at the end of June.
The state will no longer work with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in favor of a two-year contract with the GEO Group. Vermonters housed at two CCA facilities in Kentucky and Arizona will be transferred to a single GEO facility in Baldwin, Michigan.
Pallito said this week that the decision to switch to the GEO Group was in part influenced by the lower rates per bed available for small population sizes. CCA charged a higher rate per bed when the inmate population dipped below 500.
Unlike the current CCA contract, the GEO agreement does not include a mandatory minimum-occupancy rate.
The maximum occupancy under the contract is 600, which would allow the department to use beds in Michigan if an in-state facility needed to be temporarily shut down or if the population suddenly increases, Pallito said.
Pallito expects that Vermont will continue to reduce the out-of-state program over the next few years with the goal of eventually shutting it down. The contract allows for two additional one-year extensions after the agreement’s term is over, and the commissioner said he hopes the state won’t need to renew it after four years.
Suzi Wizowaty of the advocacy group Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform welcomed the news.
“It’s terrific and we need to keep it up and do more,” Wizowaty said.
She says the state needs to find better ways to manage detainees, who are being held in prison before they go through a trial. Many inmates are being held after they have served minimum sentences because their housing was determined to be inadequate.