Let’s Stay Out of Prison

I think a lot about the criminal justice system. At 79, I’ve mostly evaded its embrace except for a few driving offenses, a surprise visit from the FBI and a college incident in Ohio that I was too drunk to remember, but one that landed me in a drunk tank for an evening.

I have friends who’ve been on both sides of the system, both transgressors and enforcers: police, lawyers, judges, jailors, and, like many, I understand the system is antiquated, unjust, and needs to be reimagined.

The good news is there are many working today to build a better, more just system, one that maintains the goal of safeguarding the public from chronic violence and theft but abandons the punitive Old Testament ethos.

There are domestic and international models from which we can learn, like the much-touted Norway model, Portugal’s decision to decriminalize drug addiction and replace jail with addiction treatment, and pioneering work being done nearby in the State of Maine, as well as work being done in our own state that has reduced our incarcerated population by almost half.

The broader question we must ask ourselves is, “Are we a punitive society or a supportive community that invests in our citizens and shares prosperity? Do we invest in people and communities… or jails, homeless shelters, and emergency rooms?”

Photo Courtesy of VTDigger

The United States has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world including Russia and China. In the U.S., only Massachusetts has a lower per capita incarceration rate than Vermont. As of March 11, Vermont’s total incarcerated population was 1363, of which 112 are female and 124 men are housed out-of-state at CoreCivic in Mississippi, a for-profit prison company. Vermont’s total population under some form of community supervision is 3141 on probation, 660 on parole, and 246 on furlough.

A rapidly growing rate of geriatric prisoners, reflecting long sentencing, has put a severe burden on all prison systems, especially as it relates to the correctional system’s obligation to provide healthcare. Given very low recidivism rates for male prisoners over the age of 40 (7.5%), why not enable prisoners to earn early release and better prepare them for reentry?

Senator Tanya Vyhovsky has sponsored bill S.155 that would allow an incarcerated person to petition a court for early release after serving a fixed portion of their sentence based on earned criteria such as good behavior or completing educational or training programs. However, it is not expected to pass this session.

Senate bill S.58, an omnibus crime bill reflecting earlier “tough-on-crime” attitudes, makes prosecuting drug crimes easier, adds new crimes, and delays implementation of the “raise-the-age” initiative to reduce the number of juveniles in corrections.

To this point, in my next column, I’ll write about an innovative program underway between Community College of Vermont (CCV) and the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC).

Ninety-eight percent of people currently serving in Corrections will eventually return to society. So it’s in our own self-interest that they be prepared to securely rejoin their families, friends, and communities.

A former Commissioner of Corrections once reminded me that Corrections doesn’t put people in jail, police, prosecutors, legislators, juries (us), and judges do. Corrections is their keeper, charged with maintaining a secure facility and ensuring the health and wellbeing of those in their care.

Many correctional systems, including Vermont’s, understand that they must also prepare those in their care for a life outside. This may include access to language, literacy and other basic education skills, job training, addiction treatment, healthcare, and/or trauma-informed counseling. So given the certainty of reentry into our communities, how do we best use an incarcerated person’s time inside?

First, we must understand the criminogenic environment outside and how it can lead to criminal behavior. Studies have shown that between 62-78% of incarcerated adult males experienced trauma during their lifetime prior to incarceration.

We also know that the prefrontal cortex matures more slowly in boys than in girls. Put simply, young boys and men do more risky and stupid things when they’re young. Do you want to be measured solely by the worst mistake you made in your lifetime? I don’t. Did nothing else matter? Are we only the sum of our worst behaviors?

After an offender’s proven guilty in a court of law but prior to the sentencing hearing, what if the judiciary required a professional evaluation to determine whether a defendant’s alleged crime resulted from poverty, physical or mental illness, substance abuse, disability, gambling, or the intergenerational transfer of trauma?

If any of these latter causes were determined to be the genesis of the alleged crime, treatment would replace judicial process and sentencing.

Such a system would significantly reduce the court backlog that denies so many alleged perpetrators the constitutionally guaranteed right to a “speedy trial.”

The consequences of such a process change would put immense pressure on us as a society to invest in our community and family-support systems:  addiction treatment, mental-health counseling, healthcare access, education and job training, and anti-poverty efforts (housing, hunger etc.)   ̶   initiatives which would, however, reduce entries into our correctional system and their consequent costs. Currently, preventative supportive services are woefully inadequate and underfunded.

Meanwhile, Governor Scott’s administration has introduced plans to build a new prison estimated to cost $70 million, although his office estimates it may well cost twice that. What community support services could be funded for that amount?

Vermont’s hunger, homelessness, and poverty rates are rising. So too has the reported incidence of young people suffering from mental health issues. Between 2018 and 2021 Vermont experienced a 60% increase in children ages 3-8 years old with a mental, emotional or a behavioral health condition presenting as anxiety, depression or behavioral and conduct problems.

We know through many studies that moving our social and economic investments upstream to education, intervention, prevention, and access to support services will radically reduce our costs of remediation, repair, and restoration. We can measure our societal failures by the number of people waiting in emergency rooms, committing self-harm or suicide, shooting up on our streets, or wasting away behind bars.

Most Vermonters want a more effective criminal justice system, one that reduces reliance on prisons but focuses instead on causation, prevention, and community support systems. And thanks to the Vermont Prisoner’s Rights Office within the Office of the Defender General, Jayna Ahsaf of the Vermont – FreeHer Campaign, the Vermont ACLU’s Smart Justice Campaign, and visionary leadership in the DOC, we are seeing significant progress. But the shift to a more just and cost-efficient system is up to us.

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