Advocates suggest ways to end ‘unnecessary’ incarceration

Suzi Wizowaty

Suzi Wizowaty, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, speaks at a news conference Wednesday. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Advocates say Vermont could end its use of private prisons by making policy changes that would reduce the number of people the state puts behind bars.

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform identified five policy areas where it says changes would be effective.

“This is not just a (Department of Corrections) problem, or a legislative problem or a judicial problem,” Suzi Wizowaty, the group’s executive director, said at a news conference Wednesday at the Statehouse. “This is a problem for all of us.”

Currently, some 260 Vermont inmates are held in a facility run by a private prison corporation in Michigan, but the company has said it won’t extend the contract ending in June. The criminal justice reform group says that by implementing even some of its proposals, the state would reduce the prison population enough that it wouldn’t need the out-of-state program.

“By working together we can contribute to this effort and end unnecessary incarceration starting now,” Wizowaty said.

The proposals include removing a requirement for DOC approval of housing for offenders as they are leaving prison. In recent months, the number of people being held only because they lack an approved place to live in the community has ranged between 150 and 170, according to the department.

The group also suggests making it easier for older inmates to be released on parole, eliminating monetary bail so that people are not incarcerated because they cannot afford to pay, and reforming policies so that minor violations of conditions of release do not result in returning to prison.

Another proposal would be to use alternatives to prison for people convicted of crimes that are not violent.

More than half a decade ago Maghon Luman served a seven-month prison sentence for a nonviolent offense.

She said she still feels the impact of that conviction.

“I cannot chaperone my daughter’s field trips,” Luman said. “She’s 9, and that’s something that she doesn’t understand, and I don’t think there’s a way really to explain that to a 9-year-old.”

Luman said Vermont should stop sending people to prison for nonviolent offenses. Instead, she advocates restorative justice services within the community.

“I think any nonviolent offender should have that option versus incarceration,” Luman said.

Mitzi Johnson

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

Several lawmakers and officials attended the news conference. Though not all speakers backed all of the group’s specific proposals, they said they support the goal of reducing incarceration.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said that with a tight budget, lawmakers are looking to reduce unnecessary spending, “including the cost of locking people up who don’t really need it, those who are not a threat to public safety.”

She supported efforts to move away from using an out-of-state prison for Vermonters, saying the practice is a burden to inmates’ families and makes it more challenging for offenders when they return to the community. Lower rates of incarceration would also benefit the state, she said.

“Reducing unnecessary incarceration makes our state safer in the longer run,” Johnson said.

Attorney General TJ Donovan also spoke in support of alternatives to incarceration and said he is in favor of moving away from the out-of-state prison practice.

“Restorative justice, not just punitive justice, is an avenue to reduce incarceration, to build community infrastructure, to give people hope and opportunity, to become law-abiding citizens,” Donovan said. “That is public safety.”

However, he said ending the private prison contract is not a simple matter of choosing whether to sign the contract. To effectively end that program, he said, the state needs to take more steps to reform the criminal justice system.

Elizabeth Hewitt

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