The State has recently launched a Justice Reinvestment initiative to develop policy options to reduce the costs of incarceration and reinvest those savings in programs that reduce recidivism and increase public safety. But this is not the first such effort in Vermont. In the mid-2000s, Vermont faced a high and unsustainable rate of prison population growth. To address this problem, in 2007 Vermont formed a Justice Reinvestment Working Group.
The State received help from the Council of State Governments (CSG), a bipartisan organization that helps states shape public policy. To develop options for justice reinvestment, CSG worked with individuals involved with the Vermont criminal justice system to analyze its criminal justice data and interview stakeholders across its criminal justice system. As a result of this work, in 2008, Vermont enacted laws that improved screening and assessment of offenders for behavioral health treatment needs, increased their access to community-based substance use treatment programs, focused supervision resources on individuals most likely to reoffend, and expanded transitional housing opportunities and job training programs. Since then, the legislature has expanded eligibility for alternatives to incarceration, such as house arrest and furlough, and reinvested additional funds in prison and community-based treatment and reentry services.
These laws helped to reverse the upward pressure on the State’s prison population. In 2007, that population was projected to increase 23% by 2018. Instead, the population actually fell 16% between fiscal years 2007 and 2018. Even though the State’s incarcerated population has declined, Vermont has maintained one of the lowest crime rates in the nation, with the second lowest rate of property crime and violent crime.
Despite this progress, Vermont’s criminal justice system is currently facing some adverse trends. The State has had an expanding pretrial detention population (individuals held without bail or unable to post bail). Although still low, the violent crime rate has inched up. Recidivism rates, though generally quite stable, have been on the rise.
Because of these trends, State leaders recognized that we should re-evaluate whether we are effectively investing in strategies that break the cycle of crime and incarceration. They also recognized that we need to better identify, analyze and address the challenges in the State’s criminal justice system caused by the opioid crisis. Accordingly, the second Justice Reinvestment Working Group was formed, again with the assistance of CSG.
The new working group, which first met in August, consists of leaders from all aspects of the Vermont criminal justice system as well as mental health experts and legislators. It is charged with assessing the population trends and programming in the State’s corrections system and considering criminal justice reform strategies with the overarching goals of promoting safer, healthier communities and reducing costs.
The working group, with CSG’s help, will delve into the following key questions: How can the State reduce the number of people who cycle back through the system into prison while improving public safety? How can the State build on successful substance addiction treatment programs to reach additional rural and isolated communities and populations? How do individuals’ behavioral health challenges, such as serious mental illnesses and substance addictions, affect their movement through the criminal justice system and reentry into their communities? How can the State improve data sharing, tracking, and measurement of the prison population to better inform decisions and planning?
To answer these questions CSG staff will review the available data held by the Department of Corrections, courts, prosecutors, and others. They will also interview individuals in the criminal justice and mental health systems, as they did in 2007. Then the working group will analyze that material and, by December 1, 2019, report on the data collected, options developed and analyzed, and recommendations for policy changes. I will be collaborating with the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, who is a member of the working group, to further this important work.