On incremental vs. radical change

Or, the frustration of the impatient

First you notice that something is wrong. Maybe it’s a statistic: the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. Or a story: a teenager ends up labeled as a sex offender for something you agree was bad judgment, but not criminal; an innocent man is vindicated after decades of wrongful incarceration; a woman serves a drug sentence twice as long as her boyfriend’s because, not being actually involved, she has nothing to offer prosecutors in exchange.  


On Punishment and Deterrence: How to Create More Victims

The question at the heart of criminal justice reform is, Do we want government to play a role in preventing crime, or simply to punish crime after the fact?

We all want to live in safe communities.  But we have over-incarcerated our population, to the extent that incarceration itself has created problems.  This should make us question our current path, and particularly the Vermont legislature’s stubborn insistence on criminalizing new behaviors and increasing penalties, when this approach is widely understood to be counterproductive.


Thinking Inside the Box

A Look at Correctional Facility Reform from Within

Guest blog by Scott Lowe, Northern State Correctional Facility

As I understand from local news reports, a forum has been opened by the Attorney General, Bill Sorrell, between the citizens of this state and his office regarding the increasing number of incarcerated persons in our jails and prisons.

With that in mind, I would like to offer the observations and thoughts of an educated 45 year old first-time felony offender, currently incarcerated in the Vermont Correctional system. Namely, myself.


Why Criminal Justice Reform Must Be a Priority in 2016

This piece first appeared as a commentary on VtDigger, January 6, 2016

With the Legislature starting this week, pressure starts to build: Which of the many compelling issues will the committees take on and which will languish until another year? What does the public most want? What can do the most good?


The prison experience

When an inmate in Michigan got into a fight, he was given a 14-day “disciplinary segregation” (i.e. punishment), which he accepted willingly.  But instead of being returned to "general population" afterward, he was told (he reports) that a new policy meant he'd have to endure another 60 days of “ad seg” (administrative segregation). The difference in names means nothing to an inmate. Regardless of the bureaucratic distinction, the experience is the same—isolation from others 23 hours a day. Solitary confinement.


Racial bias in sentencing--an example

Recently VCJR submitted an amicus or “friend of the court” brief written by Robert Appel—a member of our board and former director of Vermont’s Human Rights Commission—on behalf of Shamel Alexander.  Shamel Alexander is a 26-year-old man sentenced to ten years for possession of less than 14 grams of heroin. 


How to create hardened criminals and increase crime

What is the goal of the “criminal justice system”?  What do we want to accomplish? We at Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform believe that many fewer people should be in prison, and for a much shorter time, and we are working to that end.  But meanwhile, because Vermont still sends to prison more people than we have room to hold—the prison population having quadrupled since 1980—we still have 300 men living in a private, for-profit prison in Baldwin, MI: North Lake Correctional Facility.


The right to learn and grow

Once again, the legislature is considering closing the field offices of the Community High School of Vermont.  Yes, this would save money; so would closing schools, fire departments, police stations. Government provides these public goods because we have agreed that we all need them.  The Community High School serves criminal justice-involved adults who have been failed by our educational system.  Many criminal justice-involved people have a history of trauma and often mental health or substance abuse issues, which means they need a more intensive and skilled kind of teaching. Arguably, these are people we should work the hardest to ensure have access to learning.


Statement at Press Conference on Marijuana Regulation

Cedar Creek Room, Statehouse
Montpelier, VT
Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform supports the legalization of marijuana, because criminalizing it has not worked. In fact, it was a bad idea from the beginning. That is, if the goal was to discourage people from using, it was a complete failure, as there is as much use of marijuana now as ever.


Locked Out or Locked Up

The fact that the U.S. imprisons more people (per capita and in sheer numbers) than any other country is an embarrassment and a scandal.  It happened over time as a result of state and national policies and will take time to reverse.  But the fact that the U.S. has virtually closed its borders to Syrian refugees is more than embarrassing, it’s a moral outrage.  Yes, President Obama has proposed to allow 10,000 Syrians to enter the U.S. But as the Berliner Morganspost reports, that “is how many Syrians arrived in Munich last weekend alone.”


Decrepit old people?

The prison in Springfield is known in part for its wing of "decrepit old people." At the recent Justice Oversight Committee meeting, legislators toured the prison and were apparently distressed by the sight of men in wheelchairs, or using walkers.  A senator asked, "Isn't there some other secure facility where they could be housed?"

Secure facility? 

This is the wrong question.  


VCJR Director Suzi Wizowaty: Legislative Report

WCAX TV Covers the move to Michigan

Eva McKend of WCAX covered the move or nearly 300 Vermont inmates from prisons in Kentucky and Arizona to a facility owned and operated by GEO Group. See the story here.

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

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

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