Vermont’s incarceration rate twice the national average

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(Host) According to a new report, the number of inmates in Vermont’s prison system is growing more than twice as fast as the national average. Corrections commissioner Steve Gold expects the situation to get worse in the coming years.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The number of prisoners incarcerated in Vermont’s corrections system has been steadily growing for the past ten years. As this week begins, roughly 2,000 people are housed either in Vermont jails or rented prison space in Virginia.

Last year the nation’s prison population grew by 2.6%; in Vermont the rate was 7%. Corrections Commissioner Steve Gold says it’s a growth rate that will require more and more state resources:

(Gold) “What we’re forced to do, as we have been doing, is we’re forced to contract with out of state facilities and house a number of our offenders out of state. And these growth rates – even with Springfield coming online with 362 beds there – we are going to remain in the business of buying beds out of state. And it is – ‘taxing’ is a good word. It’s very costly to be incarcerating these many folks, whether we’re talking about in state or out of state.”

(Kinzel) Gold says nearly one-half of all people incarcerated in Vermont jails today are individuals who are awaiting trial. Gold says they’re being detained in prison because judges have set very high bail in their cases:

(Gold) “The judges or the prosecutors may feel that the individual is a threat either to continue his or her criminal activity if left in the community, or a threat to flee. And in the last few years there’s been some changes in the bail laws that actually create more flexibility for the front end of the criminal justice system to detain people prior to trial.”

(Kinzel) Another problem facing the Vermont corrections system is the skyrocketing growth rate of women inmates. Gold says the number of women in Vermont prisons has grown more than 300% in the last six years:

(Gold) “Especially with the women the heroin problem in the state specifically is very, very much at the root of the increasing incarceration – both in terms of people actually being charged and sentenced with directly related drug involvement crimes. And also a number of other kinds of crimes that don’t appear to be drug related on the surface but actually various property crimes that are committed in relation to having a drug problem and needing to support one’s continued involvement with drugs.”

(Kinzel) Gold says the new Springfield prison is scheduled to receive inmates at the beginning of October. He expects it to be full by the end of the year. The opening of the new prison will allow the state to convert its correctional facility in Windsor to an all women’s institution.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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