The push is on, again, to reduce Vermont’s prison population. The goal, as proposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, is to shed another 500 inmates. If successful, the result would be 1,000 fewer inmates since 2009, when 2,200 people in Vermont were behind bars.

The ACLU’s goal is to “…undo the damage of decades of so-called tough-on-crime policies” according to James Duff Lyall, executive director of ACLU Vermont.

The organization wants to reduce the percentage of African Americans behind bars to something closer to the percentage they represent in the state’s population [1 percent]. The organization wants to decriminalize drug possession and sex work and wants to free the majority of women who are behind bars, figuring out a different approach to deal with their crimes. The group wants the Legislature to change the rules governing probation, parole and furlough so that inmates aren’t put back into jail for violating their conditions of release, if they didn’t commit another crime. That change alone could affect roughly 400 inmates.

The ACLU’s reputation aside, it’s always valuable to consider any and all options in such public policy debates. Yesterday’s accepted practices need to be tested against today’s information. It matters less who pushes the debate than it does the outcome, and the goals of any outcome should be public safety, reduced costs and justice.

That said, it should also be understood that Vermont has one of the lowest [if not the lowest] incarceration rate in the nation. Typically, if someone is in prison they’ve worked their level best to get there. It also makes no sense to follow the ACLU’s suggestion to put a 20-year prison limit on all sentences regardless of the offense. There are some seriously bad people behind bars and they need to remain behind bars; that’s how the goal of public safety is met. Pretending otherwise subtracts from the seriousness of the ACLU’s proposal.

It does, however, make sense to review the rules around probation, parole and furlough. Depending on the circumstance it may be better for all involved not to toss someone back into prison for a violation that doesn’t involve committing another crime, remembering that it costs taxpayers roughly $50,000 a year to keep someone behind bars.

However this debate evolves it affects us all in two core respects, the first being public safety and the second being cost. Those affects are indiscriminate. There is, however, a direct affect on communities that host the state’s prisons, communities like ours. There is still a proposal lurking about that would replace the women’s prison in South Burlington and the Northwestern Correctional Center in Swanton. The 850-bed facility would also absorb the 250 out-of-state prisoners.

Siting such facilities is tricky politically. It’s almost always easier to replace existing prisons with a newer facility in the same location.

But that’s a problem for places like ours. We don’t want an 850-bed facility replacing what we have. We’ve worked long and hard to overcome the “distinction” of being a prison town. And we’ve succeeded. The last thing we need is for this work to be undone by putting an 850-bed facility in our midst.

So we’ve got a stake in the prison reform debate. It’s a complicated process, and the ACLU’s proposal is a bit extreme on several fronts, but dialing it back and figuring out ways to do better with less is always a defensible process. Give the ACLU this: it doesn’t make sense to build a new 850-bed facility, which would cost tens of millions of dollars, when the debate is figuring out how to have fewer people behind bars.

by Emerson Lynn