Douglas: state may need 1500 new prison beds

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas says Vermont may need 15-hundred new prison beds in five years unless the state slows the growth of the prison population. The governor on Friday appointed a commission to examine the prison overcrowding issue.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) Governor Douglas says the new commission will look at all facets of the criminal justice system, including whether sentences should be reduced for minor crimes.

The governor cited statistics that show the prison system is under severe strain. The number of people sent to jail has more than doubled over the past 10 years.

The cost has more than quadrupled. And 24 percent of prison beds are filled by people awaiting trial.

(Douglas) This is not sustainable the way it is now. Projected need of 15-hundred beds at a maximum over the next five years is not sustainable as well. So we’ve got to a look at the system comprehensively and see what strategies we might employ.

(Dillon) The new commission on corrections overcrowding is chaired by St. Johnsbury lawyer Ed Zuccaro. The five-member panel also includes former Human Services Secretary Con Hogan, retired Judge Paul Hudson, as well as a defense lawyer and former prosecutor.

Faced with tight budgets and overflowing prisons, a number of states have begun to reassess the mandatory, tough sentences they passed in the last few decades.

Douglas says he wants the Vermont review to also look at prison sentences, and whether too many people are doing time for minor crimes.

(Douglas) They’re going to look at the criminal justice system from start to finish to see how it affects the population and our institutions and sentencing practices, criminal statutes will be part of their review.

(Dillon) The Douglas Administration already plans to hire a special investigator to examine several recent suicides within Vermont’s prisons.

But the new commission will take a deeper look at the reasons why Vermont’s prisons are chronically overcrowded. The system remains under strain, despite a new 350 bed prison in Springfield. About 530 inmates are sent out-of-state to Virginia.

Corrections Commission Steven Gold said the Legislature has already given judges the option of community-based sentences for minor crimes.

(Gold) But I also think there are issues in terms of the judiciary and state’s attorneys that need to be thought about, in terms of how the current bail laws that are on the books are being applied. And how sentencing practices are going across the state as the judiciary does its work. So there’s a lot of fertile ground here.

(Dillon) The new commission on prison overcrowding will report back to the governor next July.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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