Senate ready to pass bill on prison overcrowding

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(Host) The Vermont Senate has given preliminary approval to a bill written to ease overcrowding of state prisons. But Governor Jim Douglas says he doesn’t like a provision that would give inmates time off for good behavior.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The legislation has been the main focus of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It follows recommendations of a commission on prison overcrowding named by Governor Jim Douglas.

About 450 inmates are now sent out of state to a privately run prison system in Kentucky. Chairman Dick Sears, a Bennington County Democrat, says the comprehensive reform package should reduce the number of inmates in Vermont jails by 200 in about a year.

Sears says the cost of the state prison system is not sustainable. He pointed out that in 1985, the state spent about $15 million on its prisons.

(Sears) “A generation, we’ve gone from $15 million on prison spending to $100 million. And I believe we spend on higher education, Mr. President, about $85 million.”

(Dillon) The legislation includes deferred sentences and the use of sanctions – rather than jail times – for those who violate the conditions of their release. The bill would also allow inmates to earn five days a month off their sentence for good behavior.

Senator Ann Cummings, a Washington County Democrat, says the provision is especially important for women inmates who want to be reunited with their children.

(Cummings) “With good time and the possibility that with good time she can get out in time, and with parenting classes, with substance abuse counseling, she can get out and be a decent parent. She’s highly motivated and that’s the reason for good time.”

(Dillon) Cummings pointed out that inmates could only get time off if they followed a specific plan, such as a drug treatment program. Cummings described the current good time policy as dysfunctional. She said that the Corrections Department in some cases used four different formulas for calculating the reduced sentences.

Governor Jim Douglas said the committee did a good job overall in crafting the corrections reform legislation. But he isn’t satisfied with the good time provision.

(Douglas) “Fundamentally I think it’s important for the sentence to be clear at the time that it’s imposed, and not have these reductions as time goes on. I think truth in sentencing is a reasonable policy that the state adopted a few years ago and ought to be continued to be respected.”

(Dillon) The truth in sentencing issue will be debated again on Friday, when the bill is scheduled for final debate.

The bill also calls for another prison work camp for non-violent inmates, an expanded state Parole Board and more transitional housing for inmates. Currently, about 150 prisoners now in jail cannot leave because they have no place to live.

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

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