Democratic leaders unveil Corrections plan

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(Host intro) Senate Democratic leaders have unveiled a major plan to restructure the state corrections system.

Under the proposal, all women inmates would be housed at the St. Albans prison and several hundred non violent inmates would become eligible for community based programs.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Senate Judiciary chairman Dick Sears says lawmakers must address this issue this year because the state can’t afford to conduct business as usual when it comes to the Corrections Department.

For the past 10 years, the number of inmates in Vermont has grown by double digits each year and hundreds of people are now being sent to out of state jails because there’s no room in Vermont’s prisons.

Sears says the current Corrections budget, of over 100 million dollars a year, could easily double in ten years if strong steps aren’t taken now:

(Sears) "Because if we stay the way we’re going now I can guarantee you that we will spend…by 2018 an additional 80 to 202 million dollars on Corrections over what we’re spending today now what does that take away from…just begin on down the road of different programs that you can’t do if you’re spending that kind of money on corrections. If we could do the job better for less, why wouldn’t we do it?"

(Kinzel) Under this plan, roughly 165 women inmates, who are currently housed in Waterbury and Windsor, would be relocated to a renovated section of the St. Albans prison.

The 60 bed Waterbury facility would be closed and the 104 bed Windsor jail would be converted into a facility to house low risk long term male offenders.

A recent report of the Vermont corrections system found that the state has an unusually high number of inmates who have committed non violent crimes and substance abuse is a key factor in many of these cases.

Sears questions if jail is the best place for many of these offenders:

(Sears) "We really need to reserve our prison beds for the violent offenders who we all agree need to be locked up."

(Kinzel) Sears wants to use the savings from reducing the state’s jail capacity to help finance community based programs for offenders who need mental health and/or substance abuse treatment services.  Sears notes that roughly 50 percent of all Vermont inmates will end up back in jail after they’re released.  He thinks these new programs will help reduce this rate:

(Sears) "I think that we can maintain safer Vermont communities if we reduce that recidivism rate even by ten percent or five percent not only do you have monetary savings you make Vermont safer if these folks instead of being out and committing a future crime they change their behavior nobody here is talking about not holding offenders accountable whether they’re violent or non violent but we are talking about is changing how we hold certain on violent offenders accountable and that really is the major difference." 

(Kinzel) Some local officials have expressed concern that the state will underfund the community based programs and dump this financial burden on local property taxpayers.

Sears says he understands these concerns and he pledged to work local officials to make certain that the state lives up to its responsibility to properly fund the new programs.

The plan will now be reviewed by at least three Senate committees in the coming weeks.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.


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