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Vermont State House Montpelier VT 2014 10 18 10 2 VCJR advocates for a broad array of policy goals to minimize Vermonters’ involvement with the criminal justice system. We support alternative (restorative) responses to interpersonal harm and bad behavior generally. We oppose all state-sponsored activity that creates suffering.

In conjunction with our allies in the Justice Coalition, which we convene, VCJR also supports particular issues and initiates bills in the Vt. legislature.  Our priorities in 2017: 

Bail reform

The imposition of monetary bail to ensure appearance in court discriminates against people with little money. Those with resources manage to stay out of jail awaiting trial, while those lacking funds end up in jail, and as a result can lose their housing and their jobs. There is also significant evidence that those arriving in court from jail (looking like prisoners) experience worse outcomes than those arriving off the street (looking like regular citizens). Vt.’s new Attorney General, T.J. Donovan, a former prosecutor, considers bail reform a top priority, the House Judiciary Committee is working on a committee bill, and we support all such efforts.

Compassionate release

Statistically, “criminality” peaks at age 25 and falls off steadily every year, so that older inmates are the least likely to commit crimes. H.150, introduced by Mollie Burke (P/D, Brattleboro) would allow older prisoners who pose little or no risk to the public to apply for early parole. It would apply to prisoners 55-64 who had served ten years but not yet reached their minimum sentence and prisoners 65 and older who had served five years but not their minimum. VCJR initiated this bill in the last session (H.623), and it passed the House but not in time for Senate considertion. We hope for passage in 2017. Ask your legislator to support this today! (Find him/her here.)

Ending unnecessary incarceration--for lack of housing

Since its beginning, VCJR has pushed for ending the practice of keeping people in jail for lack of “approved” housing, On any given day, 140-150 people who are eligible for release languish behind bars for lack of housing. Occasionally someone has a bad history as a tenant and can’t find a place to rent, and sometimes he/she has a criminal charge (e.g. a sex offense) that limits housing options. But not infrequently, a probation officer or “Central Office” simply won’t approve the housing options that the inmate has identified, for any number of what appear to be arbitrary, even inexplicable, reasons. VCJR opposes the practice of requiring approval for housing. 

Ending unnecessary incarceration--for “technical violations”

 When a person is released--by the court, Dept. of Corrections, or parole board--those entities typically set condtions upon that release. Such conditions may include both requirements (e.g. you must attend counseling, you must have housing) and restrictions (e.g. you must not have contact with X, you must be in by Y o’clock). In theory, conditions are supposed to relate to the underlying charge, but in practice this is not always the case. You can be prohibited alcohol when your charge had nothing to do with alcohol, for example. Violations of these conditions—which are not crimes, by definition—can result in your being returned to jail. VCJR’s position is: if someone doesn’t want attend the required counseling or to abide by state-imposed restrictions on his/her behavior, perhaps rather than punishing that unwillingness, a better, more effective approach, one that encourages accountability and responsibility, might be to ask, “What do you need?  What would help you succeed?” 

Ending unnecessary incarceration: overall proposal


End Unnecessary Incarceration:
A Proposal

March 1, 2017

Rationale

  • Since 1985, Vermont’s incarceration rate has grown 300% for men, and 1,000% for women. And yet crime is at its lowest point since the 1960s.
  • This disproportionate incarceration rate, disconnected from the crime rate, is a result of a number of different factors, including the increased criminalization of behavior, policies like mandatory minimums and “habitual offender” statutes, and longer sentences generally.
  • Harsher penalties, longer sentences, are now understood to have little impact on public safety—and often are counterproductive. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates in a recent report that 39% of America's prisoners could be released without any risk to public safety.  
  • Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform is proposing how Vt. can take some initial steps to reduce unnecessary incarceration in Vt.--safely, and relatively quickly.  
  • Even partial implementation of these recommendations will reduce the prison population enough to bring back the men housed in the for-profit prison owned by GEO Group in Michigan, which will save the state $12 million.
  • More important—even more important that saving money—is that reducing unnecessary incarceration will leave us safer, because the evidence is great that imprisoning people who don't need to be in prison leads to worse outcomes.
  • And as a collateral benefit, bringing the out-of-state prisoners closer to their families and communities will make it easier for them to maintain the connections that are essential for successful re-integration.

Note: It goes without saying that we are adamantly opposed to the privatization of essential government functions like imprisoning citizens.  Private prison corporations, required by law to seek a profit, have a financial interest in an ever-increasing prison population. The state has a conflicting interest in having the smallest number of people incarcerated, to allow more spending on social goods such as education.  

Who is in prison unnecessarily? How to address this?

  • People held for lack of housing. Nearly 150 Vermonters remain in prison beyond their eligible release date for lack of approved housing, sometimes for months or even years. 
    • Solution: Remove the requirement for DOC approval.
  • Older, low-risk prisoners. Vermont has the second-oldest prison population in the country, and the second-highest health care cost per inmate. 
    • Solution: Increase parole eligibility ("compassionate release") for older inmates who haven't yet reached their minimum sentence.
  • People jailed for a "technical violation." An estimated third of Vermont prisoners are behind bars for a non-criminal violation of their conditions of release. 
    • Solution: Prohibit incarceration for legal activity, and substitute incentives for punishments to achieve better outcomes.
  • People held for lack of bail. Jailing people who can't afford bail discriminates against poor people. Jurisdictions that have eliminated money bail have found no impact on the rate of defendants' showing up.
    • Solution: Eliminate monetary bail.
  • People charged with or convicted of non-violent offenses--about a third of Vermont's prisoners. Low-level offenders who are sent to jail ("crime school") often lose their jobs and housing, ensuring an even harder time afterward, when they could instead be engaged in an education or job training program, treatment for substance abuse, or reparative community work.
    • Solution: Make greater use of alternative responses to non-violent offenses.

Conclusion

Ending unnecessary incarceration should be a top priority for the state—for reasons of both justice and economics.  The Dept. of Corrections alone has the power to implement internal policy changes to reduce the prison population by 250 people by June.  But long-term “de-carceration” in Vermont requires participation by the legislature, state’s attorneys and the judiciary, and ultimately the mental health system, treatment providers, the community justice network and the public.  But we must take action now to end unnecessary incarceration, so that we can begin to make Vermont a safer, more just and healthier state.

“For the Sake of the Children”

This is a three-year project aimed at increasing alternatives to incarceration for women, beginning with women charged with non-violent offenses who have minor children. This first year has involved interviewing currently and formerly incarcerated women, asking "What did you need when you first started getting in trouble? What would have helped? What do you need now?" The project is driven by advocates and formerly incarcerated women working together. Years two and three will involve laying the groundwork for the recommendations that emerge  in year one, and beginning their implementation. 

“Locked Up and #ShippedAway”

This campaign, begun in 2014, in conjunction with Grassroots Leadership in Texas, focuses on reducing Vermont's prison population in order to end the practice of shipping men out of state to a private prison company. This winter, the state learned that GEO Group, which owns the for-profit prison in Michigan that houses 240 Vermont men, will not renew its contract with Vermont in July. That means that the state has an extra incentive to implement some of the changes VCJR has been pushing for several years: by reducing the number of prisoners in-state by 250, Vermont could simply bring back home the men in Michigan. This requires the legislature and the Dept. of Corrections to take action (and the judiciary to follow through and participate)--but it can be done. This is a priority in the spring of 2017. Do you agree that Vt. should cut ties with private prison companies and keep people in state, close to their loved ones? Sign our petition that opposes the use of out of state private prisoners here!

VCJR also seeks to:

  • Stop creating new crimes.
  • Change the public conversation about the value of punishment.
  • End the “war on drugs.”
  • Require all juveniles under 18 be addressed in Family Court (if cited at all).
  • Ensure that people’s mental health and substance abuse issues are addressed in the community, not prison.
  • End solitary confinement under any name. Allow single cells (i.e. rooms).  A person with mental illness requiring "segregation" needs a treatment setting, not prison.
  • Address overly harsh sentencing practices of the past by offering a "second look" and re-sentencing option.
  • Require all facilities to offer job training and programming from the beginning of a sentence.
  • Bring back “good time.”
  • Reduce the collateral consequences of conviction.

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform
PO Box 8753, Burlington, VT 05402
(802) 540-0440

Contact us:
tom@vcjr.org

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform 
is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

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