Courts & Corrections

Auditor: Public safety spending up as crime rates flat

A report from the state auditor says that while crime rates in Vermont have remained largely flat over the last decade and a half, spending on public safety has increased more than 50 percent.

The report calculates that state appropriations for public safety have gone from $252 million in 2001 to $381 million in fiscal year 2017, adjusted for inflation.

Doug Hoffer
State Auditor Doug Hoffer. File photo by Morgan True/VTDigger
However, the crime rate in the state has stayed relatively flat during that period, with some fluctuations between years, according to the report.

Total public safety spending in fiscal 2017 in Vermont — including local, state and federal dollars — is calculated as $574 million.

“I’m pretty surprised at the dollar figure,” State Auditor Doug Hoffer said.

Hoffer said he was driven to the subject out of curiosity. Budgets for public safety across the state are typically handled individually. Some services, like local police, are funded at a municipal level.

At a state level, budgets for different components of the criminal justice system are handled independently. Expenses for operating the courts and for funding prosecutors and public defenders are separate from the budgets for departments that deal with aspects of public safety.

In the current 2017 fiscal year, cities and towns are expected to spend $162.5 million on public safety.

The Department of Corrections is the second largest expenditure, at $155.8 million. The Vermont Department of Public Safety, which includes the Vermont State Police, has a total appropriation of $108.9 million.

The report also includes the costs associated with the court system, prosecutors and public defenders.

Corrections has had the greatest increase in appropriations between 2001 and 2017. Spending on the department increased 32 percent, from $115 million in 2001 to $152 million a decade later. However, the report notes, the corrections budget has remained level since then, a trend driven by staffing numbers and changes in the incarcerated population.

Based on discussions with state public safety organizations, the increased levels of funding have been driven by rising labor costs and caseloads. The report also mentions the recent increase in opioid addiction as a factor straining public safety resources across the country and in the Northeast.

Hoffer said part of the increase in expenditures reflects an expansion of the technology and types of work police do.

“They can and do a lot more things than they did 15, 20 years ago,” Hoffer said.

According to the report, Vermont’s trends match the national context. While crime rates have dropped across the country since the mid-1990s, public safety is a larger share of government budgets than it was three decades ago.

The report attracted legislative interest, as lawmakers are at work crafting the budget for the next fiscal year.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said the figure for total statewide spending on public safety is “surprising” considering the population of Vermont.

“When you think about that per person that’s quite a bit of money,” Sears said.

Sears said he wanted his committee to probe the budgets further. The panel heard from Hoffer recently on the report.

Looking at the costs associated with public safety statewide offers perspective on the criminal justice system, where the work of many organizations and players is interconnected, he said.

“Everybody affects everybody else when it comes to the system,” Sears said. “It doesn’t operate in a vacuum.”

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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