Senate legislation would reduce numbers in Vermont prisons

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(Host) A bi-partisan group of senators wants to pass legislation this year to reduce the number of people in the state’s prison system. The corrections reform package includes the use of deferred sentences, reduced prison terms for good behavior and a new prison work camp.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Senate Judiciary Committee has assembled a grim set of statistics detailing the explosive growth in Vermont’s prison population. Although the overall crime rate hasn’t changed, the prison population has doubled in the past decade. One out of every five Vermont men between the ages of 21 and 23 is under the supervision of the Corrections Department. The state now spends more on prisons, about $99 million, than it does on higher education.

Senate leaders say the present course is unsustainable. Senator Dick Sears is a Democrat from Bennington chairs the Judiciary Committee. He says that if the state cuts the prison population, it must also invest in other measures to help inmates and protect the public.

(Sears) “We are committed to making sure that a portion of the savings derived by lowering the numbers incarcerated goes to increased supervision in the community and increased supports for offenders in the community – such as housing, jobs and other things that they need to be successful.”

(Dillon) The legislative package includes deferred sentences and the use of sanctions rather than automatic jail time for people who violate conditions of release. The Senate Judiciary Committee also wants to allow prisoners to earn time off their sentences for good behavior.

Vermont now sends about 450 inmates out of state to a privately run prison in Kentucky. Sears says lawmakers won’t be able to cut the prison population by that much in the short term.

(Sears) “We’re not going to get out of it overnight, I think. And I think that most of the committee would agree that our goal has been incremental. By June 30 of 2006 we should see a reduction of 200 people incarcerated.”

(Dillon) Governor Douglas generally supports the senate plan. The governor says most of the recommendations were first outlined by a gubernatorial commission on prison overcrowding.

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

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