Doug Hoffer: The time is ripe to reinvent our public safety system

Editor's note: This commentary is by state Auditor Doug Hoffer.

Recent tragedies and ensuing protests around the country have catalyzed discussions about how police conduct themselves and whether some of the resources devoted to traditional policing should be reallocated. This is an important and long overdue conversation, which I support.  

As we take a hard look at the role of police in Vermont, I encourage Vermonters and our elected officials to expand our lens to consider the entire public safety system in our state. 

A few years ago, my office examined the total amount spent in Vermont for public safety by state and local governments. We found that a total of $574 million was spent on public safety in Vermont in fiscal year 2017 (the report is available here). We didn’t pass judgment about whether that was too much, too little, or just right. But it is unquestionably a great deal of money. For context, that total equated to roughly 37% of the state’s general fund appropriations that year.

The question for policymakers is whether the current system is optimal. Does it provide Vermonters with a just and safe society? Is it cost effective? Does it minimize redundancies? Are services equitably distributed around the state? Does it disproportionately affect minority and marginalized populations? How well does the system balance prevention and enforcement? And so forth. 

Now is the time to ask these questions and to think strategically about a comprehensive public safety plan for Vermont. We should inventory our assets and the services currently provided and define our public safety needs and goals. We should then align our resources in the most efficient and effective manner to achieve those goals.  

We are facing one of the greatest economic challenges in history, and we have a vital system that costs more than half a billion dollars annually. It is ripe for reconsideration. This is an opportunity to zoom out and look at the whole picture.  

The graph here shows how our tax dollars were allocated on public safety in 2017 (not including most fire services and public health). When we looked at these categories of spending between 2001 and 2017, we found that (adjusted for inflation) every category increased, even though crime rates remained relatively flat. 

This conversation is overdue, and I would be shocked if we couldn’t find efficiencies in the system. Can cities and towns share more services?  Do we need both state police and sheriffs? Are there services that uniformed police are asked to provide that can be more effectively and efficiently provided by other professionals? Can equipment costs be reduced and realigned? Can we further reduce incarceration rates? Are all the elements of the criminal justice system effectively integrated (i.e., courts, state’s attorneys, defender deneral, corrections, etc.)? The list goes on. 

My office is focused on providing all Vermonters with the greatest value for their public dollars. Savings from restructuring the system could be devoted to investments designed to improve the well-being of Vermonters and reduce the need for some existing services. These issues are too important to ignore, and we simply cannot afford inaction. 

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