Suzi Wizowaty: Unrenewed prison contract is chance for change

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Suzi Wizowaty, who is the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. She is a former member of the Vermont House of Representatives.

The news that GEO Group — the private prison corporation that houses 240 Vermont men in Michigan — won’t renew its contract with Vermont presents a welcome opportunity. The question now is not: Where can the state find 240 more prison beds elsewhere? The real question is: Will the state take advantage of this opportunity to stop locking up the hundreds — yes hundreds — of people whose incarceration is not just a waste of money but counterproductive?

Who are these hundreds of Vermonters?

People accused of non-violent crimes who can’t afford bail — an estimated several hundred people. Though in theory a judge imposes monetary bail to ensure that the accused person shows up for his/her arraignment, in fact jurisdictions that have eliminated monetary bail like Washington, D.C., have seen no impact on the rate of “appearance.”

People in jail for lack of housing — about 140. These are people who have served their time and done their required programming but can’t get Department of Corrections staff to approve any of their proposed housing options. (There’s beer in the fridge, or the neighborhood is sketchy, or it’s a “known drug area” — unlike jail, where you can often get drugs in the same building. Sometimes the reason is as simple, and cruel, as “You screwed up before, and I don’t think you’ve changed, so I’m not approving X housing.”)

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform calls on Gov.-elect Phil Scott to convene a small working group tasked with presenting a viable alternative to simply moving the men in Michigan to another private prison elsewhere — by April 1.

 

People in for “technical violations,” conservatively estimated at 300-500. These are men and women on probation, furlough or parole who’ve done something otherwise legal that a government official — a judge or probation officer or the parole board — thought they shouldn’t. This includes things like having a beer, staying overnight with a loved one, or missing an appointment with a counselor because the bus was late. The reasons for setting such restrictions on another’s behavior may be logical or arbitrary, but the act of doing so at all is often paternalistic. Do government officials always know best?

People convicted of nonviolent crimes — about 30 percent of male prisoners or 450 men, and 50-70 percent of female prisoners, or at least 60 women. Does anyone really believe that putting people in cages is the most effective way of addressing what is at worst anti-social behavior? Or that “crime school” is the place to learn how to resolve conflict more constructively, or how to make a decent living legally, or how to grow beyond the childhood traumas that often lead to self-medication and addiction?

The Brennan Center for Justice recently released a report on unnecessary incarceration suggesting that 39 percent of prisoners nationally could be released right now with no impact on public safety, and with a savings of $20 billion a year.

While the same 39 percent no doubt applies to Vermont as well, reducing unnecessary incarceration here by a mere 14 percent would eliminate the need for any out-of-state contract — and save roughly $12 million. A quick review of the categories above suggests that this is eminently achievable. Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform calls on Gov.-elect Phil Scott to convene a small working group tasked with presenting a viable alternative to simply moving the men in Michigan to another private prison elsewhere — by April 1. Yes, it will take much discussion and the cooperation of executive, legislative and judicial branches. But it can be done.

Vermonters talked about closing the Vermont State Hospital for decades before Tropical Storm Irene forced the state’s hand. This could be the justice system’s Irene. All it takes is the political will to increase public safety by reducing a particularly ineffective, even destructive, kind of government intervention. It can be done, and it’s the right thing to do.

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