Commission Recommends Releasing Hundreds of Inmates

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(Host) A special commission on prison overcrowding is recommending that several hundred non-violent inmates be released from jail and placed under the control of a community-based corrections program. The report concludes that the state will have to build another major correctional facility if this and other steps are not adopted soon.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The commission, which has been looking at this issue since last November, reached its conclusions after considering the following facts.

In the last ten years, the number of people incarcerated in the state has increased by 200 percent; the number of people being held in prison on pre-trial detention has gone up 300 percent; and the number of women offenders has jumped roughly 500 percent. There are now just over 2,000 inmates in the state’s prison system, including 400 people who have been sent to jails in Kentucky and Arizona because there’s no room for them in Vermont prisons.

The chairman of the commission, St. Johnsbury attorney Ed Zucarro, described the state’s correctional system as “a quagmire” that needs some significant changes:

(Zucarro) “We have concluded that the state of Vermont cannot continue to operate its criminal justice system in the way it presently does with a tremendous increasing prison population.”

(Kinzel) The commission believes the overcrowding of the state’s prison system can be relieved by adopting a number of recommendations.

One key proposal calls for the release of several hundred non-violent offenders from Vermont prisons. These inmates would be placed in community-based correctional programs. If this happens, it would free up space in the state system and Vermont inmates would no longer need to be sent to out-of-state jails.

Retired Judge Paul Hudson says this option makes a lot of sense even though some members of the public may oppose it:

(Hudson) “People may re-offend but if you set aside the charter of the Department of Corrections then you have to be prepared to keep building prisons. In Vermont, how many people do you want employed in the prison industry? How much do you want to pay? You have in place good programs like Tapestry, like the half-way houses, like the intense substance abuse programs that really are working. We’re suggesting expanding those. Those are out-patient facilities rather than the in- patient brand. We suggest that there are a number of people who can do that.”

(Kinzel) Hudson says while it’s appropriate to send drug dealers to jail, people who are arrested for using drugs would probably be better served by participating in a community-based substance abuse program.

Governor Jim Douglas says he’s encouraged by the recommendations in the report and he’s asked the Human Services Agency to carefully study the plan so that some of the proposals can be included in next year’s budget.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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