Eleven inmates released as Corrections recalculates sentences

Southeast State Correctional Facility

The Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor. Department of Corrections photo

The Vermont Department of Corrections is in the process of recalculating the sentences of all offenders.

Eleven inmates were released from prison as of the end of August, according to DOC Commissioner Lisa Menard.

The recalculation is the result of a court decision handed down in June, in which a judge ruled in favor of an inmate, Nathaniel Serre, who claimed he was held in jail beyond the court ordered length of his sentence.

Serre contended that the DOC calculated his sentence incorrectly. He had already served 51 days on a 2012 burglary conviction and was out of prison on probation when he was arrested again.

Serre pleaded guilty on six misdemeanor charges, and the judge ordered that his sentences be served concurrently, and that Serre be given credit for the time he had already served.

However, in calculating Serre’s sentence, the DOC stacked Serre’s two sentences, rather than calculating them so they ran concurrently. Judge John Wesley determined that the DOC was using Serre’s longer sentence to calculate the time he should serve, which is not supported by state statute, he wrote.

In a footnote, Wesley questioned how the DOC would determine an offender’s sentence if two convictions carry the same minimum and maximum terms.

“DOC would be left in such situations to arbitrarily pick which sentence would be the governing sentence,” Wesley wrote. “Surely such a result would be unjust and absurd, and it is not contemplated by the statute.”

The DOC decided not to appeal the ruling because Serre’s sentence had already been served, outgoing DOC commissioner Andy Pallito told VTDigger last week.

So, the department began the process of combing through every offender incarcerated or on probation or parole to double-check that each sentence is correct. “Now that we’re aware, we have to look through everybody,” Pallito said.

As of the end of August, the team had gone through sentences for 250 offenders, including prisoners and parolees, to check the math on their sentences. Of the total, 84 individuals’ sentences were impacted by the recalculation. Eleven of those people were released from incarceration as a result of the changed policy — almost 5 percent of cases reviewed.

“We can’t incarcerate someone if they shouldn’t be incarcerated,” Kurt Kuehl, general counsel for the DOC, said Thursday.

Menard said three employees are devoted to re-evaluating sentences to ensure that inmates are serving the correct amount of time. She expects the process will take several months to complete.

The policy change will not have any significant impact on the total prison population, she says.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Joint Legislative Justice Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, anticipates that lawmakers will look at the policies in the wake of the change.

The state has long had a problem with “prison math” — the formulas used to calculate how long an offender should spend incarcerated according to their sentence, Sears said.

“Our goal is the day that the person is sentenced, they know what the sentence is, the victim knows what the sentence is, and everybody is on the same page,” Sears said.

Suzi Wizowaty, of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, supports the changed policy.

“Any decision that looks at sentencing and results in people’s sentences being shortened is a good thing,” Wizowaty said.

Wizowaty said that there is evidence that shorter sentences are better in the long term. She said that there is a need to look at sentencing reform, but that it is a legislatively difficult subject.

Elizabeth Hewitt

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  • Fred Woogmaster

    Why is it “a legislatively difficult subject”?

    Is Corrections, still, a “growth industry”?

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