Under new legislation, Vt would close one of its prisons

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(Host) Vermont will close one of its prisons and help more prisoners deal with drug addiction under legislation approved by the Senate today.

The bill passed with bipartisan support. Backers hope it will help slow the rapid growth in corrections spending.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Last year, the legislature urged the Department of Corrections to come up with a plan to save $4 million in corrections spending. The budget now is around $130 million – up 74% in seven years.

The new legislation should begin to slow that upward trend.

Senator Susan Bartlett chairs the Appropriations Committee.

(Bartlett) “We are doing something that nobody else in the country is doing that we can find. We are closing a correctional facility. We are closing a wing of another correctional facility. We are saying substance abuse is at the base of so many of these offenders. And we have to save money, and we have to provide treatment.”

(Dillon) The bill calls for closing the state’s most expensive prison, the Dale correctional facility in Waterbury.

Women prisoners now at Dale would be transferred to the St. Albans prison, while a new work camp for non-violent offenders would be opened in Windsor.

The bill also increases help for non-violent, drug-addicted, offenders.

Bennington Senator Dick Sears chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. He says these prisoners are guilty of property crimes, but are otherwise not a menace to society.

(Sears) “They do things that really annoy us, but are not necessarily dangerous offenders. They need to be dealt with and they need to be held accountable, but do we need to put them in jail to hold them accountable? And that’s the question.”

(Dillon) Corrections Commissioner Rob Hofmann says the state simply can’t afford to lock up everyone with a drug problem who commits a crime.

(Hofmann) “And if we can work on addictions, I think we can make sizeable gains. I mean for every person we can keep out of prison, we’re saving tens of thousands of dollars.”

(Dillon) The bill spends more money on transitional housing to help prisoners once they’ve done their time. Hofmann says that about 180 prisoners now have to stay in jail because there’s no housing available. The bill sets up an additional 60 beds for recently released offenders.

Hofmann said the legislation enjoyed bi-partisan support.

(Hofmann) “If Vermonters saw how their elected officials have worked on this, they’d be proud. Because they’ve worked on a very difficult issue that in a lot of other states can become highly politicized, and have worked on a non-partisan fashion to craft some changes that maintain community safety but slow the growth that’s been choking other valuable programs like agriculture, environment, higher ed.”

(Dillon) The Senate bill was very similar to a House version. The changes will most likely be worked out in a conference committee.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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