Criminal Justice Reform in Vermont: Real Progress

To build or not to build… (a new state prison) that is the question.

Under the leadership of Jim Baker, Interim Commissioner of Corrections (DOC), along with a plurality of Vermonters committed to a more humane and restorative criminal justice system, we’re seeing significant progress toward reform of Vermont’s criminal justice system.

Governmental change is, by its nature, bumpy and imperfect, a process of learning, making – and correcting – mistakes. Driven by committed leadership, it persists against resistance from those whose privilege may be threatened by change. Progress is strengthened by incremental improvements and the passage of time that lets citizen recognize that the changes made are creating better outcomes.

There are many gravitational influences in the planetary system of criminal justice reform here in Vermont: ACLU-VT, The Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative (WJFI), Community Justice Network of VT, Kathy Fox PHD, Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, VT Att. General, T.J. Donovan, Chittenden County States Attorney, Sarah George, Office of the VT Defender General, and more.

The newest player on the block is the Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative, (WJFI), founded and headed by Ashley Messier, formerly incarcerated at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF), and then a lead organizer for ACLU-VT’s Smart Justice Campaign , as well as the VT Organizer for The National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and a newly appointed Commissioner on the Vermont Commission on Women(VCW). As head of WJFI, Messier is committed to transformation of the criminal legal system and fundamental change in how communities respond to harm, leading to the end of incarceration, initially for women and LGBTQ+ people.

The “criminal justice system” is a broad spillway into prison, starting with the legislature’s often reactive creation of laws and statute, police, prosecutors, judges, and us… the jurors and voters whose values elect community leaders, lawmakers and prosecutors. Corrections doesn’t put people in prison – the spillway does, – Corrections is responsible for ensuring prisoner safety and secure confinement, and, in their own words, “the placement of offenders in the least restrictive environment consistent with public safety and offense severity.”

The value conflict between an Old Testament belief in punishment and the emerging belief in restorative justice roils the politics of reform. The law and order crowd wants offenders isolated from society and punished for their misdeeds. The prevailing restorative justice movement wants to segregate only as a last resort in order to protect society and develop a well-resourced path for prisoners to return to family, community, and the economy.

Under Commissioner Baker’s leadership Vermont’s prison population has dropped from some 1750 to about 1400 prisoners, some driven by the exigencies of Covid and the need to protect prisoners; some by release of those incarcerated for technical violations, and still others through a system of vetted community release.

Of the 1400 prisoners in the system, 200 (down from 268) are housed in Mississippi at Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, a Core Civic for-profit prison. Of those, 85 % acquired Covid-19 and are in treatment there. Most have recovered and none currently need symptomatic treatment.

Corrections officials recently visited Tallahatchie to check on the care of Vermont prisoners and, with the addition of direct remote-camera access, felt better about their ability to monitor the care of the prisoners. But the Commissioner still believes that the $6M cost would be better spent on mental health, trauma-informed counselling, and substance-abuse treatment for his wards.

Recently, the expiring Core Civic contract was extended for a year, as no other DOC-approved options existed with the onset of Covid-19. The extension also gives Corrections and the legislature a window to assess and possibly re-engineer facilities to house all or more Vermont prisoners in-state and better accommodate disability and healthcare needs with or without a pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Dept. of Buildings and General Services(BGS) has issued a  request-for-proposal to assess the feasibility of building a new prison. This apparently comes from the executive and/or legislative branch, as no such plans are in the works at Corrections, according to Interim Commissioner Baker, nor has he yet asked for a proposal to build a new prison in Vermont.

Rep. Alice Emmons (D) Windsor, Chair of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, is keeping an open mind about whether or not to build a new prison. Her expressed concerns are the age and deferred maintenance costs of Corrections’ current facilities, the lack of land around them for workforce training, exercise, gardening, and other rehabilitative activities, their inaccessibility for the increasing population of aged and disabled prisoners, and the lack of adequate hygiene facilities during a pandemic.

The cost to modernize any of the current facilities might well exceed the cost to build a new one designed for today’s lower prison population and rehabilitative programming. Vermont’s current facilities were built when the prevailing public view was “lock ‘em up.” Rep. Emmons feels strongly that policy changes alone are inadequate without facilities designed to enable their deployment.

WJFI’s Messier is currently targeting the closure of the CRCF women’s facility and Commissioner Baker is on record agreeing with her. WJFI also opposes new prison construction, believing strongly that prisons offer no benefit to either society or the offender, and that funds proposed for prison construction should instead be invested upstream in communities, ensuring access to housing, mental and physical health services, education, nutrition, and living wage employment.

Messier goes on to say,

“In 2020, there’s solid evidence that incarceration doesn’t enhance community “safety.” In fact, trauma inflicted during incarceration adds to the trauma already carried by those in the system. When some 90% of the women in CRCF are victims of abuse, trauma, trafficking, and substance-use disorder, a better solution would be to address the root causes of their behaviors, not locking them in cages and hoping for successful outcomes. We should be investing in our communities to respond to harm with structures and services that meet the needs of those neighbors, friends, and families who live here.”

As former Corrections Commissioner John Gorczyk often noted, criminal behavior originates in communities where support services are inadequate. If we reinvest our criminal justice expenditures upstream in the wellbeing of our citizens, we will not have to spend $50,000 a year incarcerating a Vermonter.

There’s a pervasive new criminal justice vision in Vermont and nationally. And, while there are disagreements on policy and pace as we try to envisage this new system, we’re buoyed by our common cause and the significant progress made under a new generation of leadership.

But it’s not enough to leave reform to criminal justice professionals. We must look to the causes of crime in our own communities, flaws in the criminal justice feeder system, and then continue working together to diminish the need for spending $180M a year keeping Vermonters behind bars instead of investing that money in community-support systems that reduce criminal behavior.