Rutland and Windsor County programs recognized
Between 1997 and 2008, Vermont’s prison inmate population grew by 86 percent. After years of work to create a more rational criminal justice system that locks up fewer Vermonters that trend has been reversed, and today Vermont’s inmate population is at its lowest point since the early 2000s, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced Monday, Nov. 16.
“Creating a more rational criminal justice system is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do,” Gov. Shumlin said. “Policies to keep Vermonters out of jail and to reduce recidivism rates allow us to save money and invest in things like early childhood education, which we know can reduce incarceration rates over the long term. Locking people up is incredibly expensive. We should do everything we can to avoid it when possible and invest in programs that help individuals become productive members of our communities.”
In 2010, Gov. Shumlin ran on a promise to reform the criminal justice system in Vermont. He pledged to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals and offer substance abuse programs for nonviolent offenders to keep low-level criminals out of jail. He said doing so would reduce costs in the Corrections budget and allow the state to invest in things like early childhood education that help avoid the need to incarcerate individuals later in life. On all those fronts, significant progress has been made.
When the Governor came to office in January 2011, Vermont’s inmate population stood at 2,103 and a Council on State Government (CSG) study projected that it would reach 2,619 by November 2015. Today, Vermont has 1,734 inmates, 885 less than projected. It costs roughly $62,000 per year for each in-state inmate. Had the CSG projection proved correct, Vermont would have been looking at additional costs of tens of millions of dollars each year.
The number of prisoners housed out of state has declined as well, falling 52 percent from 562 in 2011 to 271 today.
The rate of growth in the Corrections budget has declined significantly as well. Between FY2006 and FY2011, the General Fund Corrections budget grew by about 30 percent or roughly 6 percent per year. Between FY2011 and FY2016, the growth was slowed to about 9 percent, or less than 2 percent per year.
The decline in the prison population and Corrections budget growth rate follows years of focus on pursuing legislation to reform the criminal justice system.
The Governor signed into law in 2011 a “War on Recidivism” bill to help inmates successfully transition back into their communities, reduce recidivism rates, and hold down prison costs for taxpayers.
In 2013, the Governor signed legislation to eliminate criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Earlier this year, the Governor signed into law an expansion of Vermont’s expungement law, making more Vermonters eligible to have criminal convictions removed from their records by a judge. In particular, the law allows people to seek expungement after one year, instead of the typical 10-year waiting period, if their offense is for conduct that is no longer a crime, such as possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The Governor also worked earlier this year with his Pathways from Poverty Council and Chittenden County States Attorney TJ Donovan on a pilot Driver Restoration Day that helped hundreds of Vermonters get their licenses reinstated.
And in April the Governor signed an Executive Order to “ban the box,”removing questions about criminal records from the very first part of job applications for state employment. The policy will prevent applicants from being immediately screened out of state jobs because of a criminal conviction.
Progress has also been made on diverting non-violent offenders into substance abuse programs rather than jail.
In his 2014 State of the State Address, the Governor called for a pretrial services program that would allow non-violent offenders arrested for certain crimes to seek treatment for drug addiction rather than serve jail time. The legislature passed such a bill in 2014 and the first Director of Pretrial Services, Annie Ramniceanu, was hired in the fall of that year. As of Oct. 15 the pretrial services program has been fully implemented and is currently available to all eligible populations statewide.
During the initial rollout period leading up to mid-October, preliminary data show that 800 individuals were entered into the Pretrial Services database. Monitors successfully made contact with 36 percent of that population and only 4 percent declined screening. Of the 204 individuals screened by a pretrial services monitor, all received a brief intervention for mental health and/or substance use, which included information and/or a referral for services, and had their cases forwarded on to the relevant States Attorney for consideration of precharge programming.
Additionally, in 2012 the Governor tapped then Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand to help criminal justice professionals throughout the state develop innovative and effective sentencing practices, including the creation of DUI treatment dockets in Vermont, which are similar to the drug court model and help impaired drivers overcome their addiction through close judicial monitoring of their treatment and the imposition of swift and certain sanctions and rewards. DUI treatments dockets can increase substance abuse recovery rates, lower recidivism rates, and save correctional and other costs.
The DUI Treatment Docket in Windsor County enrolled its first participants in early 2014. The intensive, 18 to 24 month program involves regular bi-weekly hearings before the sentencing judge, random drug and alcohol testing, intensive treatment, and the support of a multi-disciplinary team to include a prosecutor, defender, probation officer, law enforcement officer, case manager and court coordinator. Two individuals have now graduated from the program with more to follow soon. Next month, 10 criminal justice professionals from Washington and Windham Counties will attend a 3.5 day training through the National Center for DWI Courts to learn how to establish a DUI court. The trip is supported with funding from the Governor’s Highway Safety Program and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
On Friday, Nov. 13, the first-ever Vermont Treatment Court Awards were awarded to three individuals. This award recognizes the outstanding contributions that people have made to DUI and other treatment courts. The award winners were Judge Frank McCaffrey for his work on the Rutland Drug Court, Robert Wolford of the Howard Center for his work on the Chittenden County Treatment Courts, and Jordana Levine, a defense attorney in White River, for her work on the DUI Treatment Court in Windsor County.