Democratic candidate for attorney general TJ Donovan says he wants to ban the practice of sending Vermont inmates to out-of-state prison in the first 100 days of the next legislative session. Some veteran policymakers say it’s easier said than done.
TJ Donovan admits that criminal offenders might not be the most sympathetic figures.
“Yes, they’ve done something bad. Sometimes they’ve done something terrible,” says Donovan, the three-term state’s attorney from Chittenden County.
But Donovan says the state has a duty to look out for its citizens, even those that it sends to prison. And he says sending inmates hundreds of miles away from family and friends, to private correctional facilities that often lack programming and treatment, only exacerbates their threat to public safety.
“They don’t work,” Donovan says of private, out-of-state correctional facilities. “They’re not successful in terms of getting people to reenter our community.”
It’s a view shared by the U.S. Department of Justice, which announced last month that it would stop sending federal inmates to privately owned prisons. That decision came by executive fiat. And if elected attorney general, Donovan says he’ll seek similarly dramatic action from the next governor or Legislature.
“Number one, I think we should commit to terminating the contract – that’s number one,” Donovan says.
Terminating the contract, according to Donovan, will force policymakers to figure out how to open up the bed space in Vermont needed to bring home the 250 inmates now serving their time in a private facility in Michigan.
Donovan says there are a number of avenues to get there, from being more judicious about pre-trial detention, or finding appropriate transitional housing for inmates who have already served their minimum sentence. He says there are other possibilities as well.
“Let’s consider compassionate release programs for people who are elderly and sick,” Donovan says.
Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he’d love to wave a magic wand and bring offenders home. But he says there’s one problem:
“That suggests that there are 250 people currently incarcerated who could be somewhere else,” Sears says.
And Sears says that’s just not the case, at least not right now. Sears says lawmakers and administration officials have already worked to reduce the prison population, which has fallen from more than 2,200 inmates in 2009 to about 1,750 today. Over that same time period, the number of inmates serving time out of state has dropped from nearly 700 down to 250.
Sears says the numbers have fallen “because we’ve pretty much diverted most nonviolent offenders, unless they’re repeat, repeat, repeat.”
Sears says today, unlike in the past, there’s usually a sound public safety reason for someone being behind bars. The senator says he’s opposed in concept to sending inmates out of state, for all the reasons Donovan offered. But he says “criminal justice policy needs to be consistent with public safety.”
And Sears says he doesn’t think the state can guarantee that public safety unless the release of inmates is accompanied by significant investments in supervised transitional housing, and more robust community-based treatment services.
“When you dig down into the numbers, it becomes difficult,” Sears says.
Defender General Matthew Valerio oversees the state office that provides public representation to people charged with crimes. Valerio says it’s well within Vermont’s capacity to get the inmates home.
“We could do this,” Valerio says. “Vermont could do this if it wanted to do this, and it’s now a matter of political will.”
Valerio says galvanizing that political will is the hard part. Valerio says letting inmates out of prison, even for good reasons, is fraught politically. And he says it’s easier to lock them up than let them out.
“Judges know, they’re never going to get in trouble for locking someone up, prosecutors know they’re never going to get in any trouble,” Valerio says.
Valerio says there are about 200 inmates serving time in Vermont prisons right now who are past their minimum sentences, and who are in jail solely for lack of what corrections officials deems to be appropriate housing. Solve that problem, Valerio says, and you solve the out-of-state dilemma as well.
“We could get all 200 back literally without changing the law at all,” Valerio says.
Valerio says the state could look to other segments of the prison population as well. He says more than 100 inmates have completed all their court-ordered programming, but still have six months or fewer until their release date.
Valerio says if the state was willing to furlough inmates on that so-called “dead time,” it could go a long way toward opening up the cells needed to bring out-of-state inmates home.
Sears, however, says a significant portion of the inmates in those categories are made up of sex offenders. And he says the Vermont communities where those inmates would be sent might not be enthusiastic about that plan.
“So it isn’t as easy as that,” Sears says.
Lisa Menard, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections, says the state has embarked on a number of different programs designed to reduce further the inmate population. They include enhanced risk assessments at the local level and the use of pre-trial monitoring programs that keep the accused out of jail pending trial.
Menard says she’s confident those program will yield results. But she says it’s not necessarily going to happen overnight.
“It is often several years before something is implemented that you do see the changes in the numbers,” Menard says. “But it is happening, and it is happening steadily, and safely.”
Republican Deb Bucknam is TJ Donovan’s rival in the race for attorney general. Bucknam, a lawyer, says she’s represented people with relatives serving time out of state, and she says she appreciates the hardship it creates.
Bucknam, however, says policymakers need to answer to some key questions before they terminate the out-of-state prison contract.
“What is that going to cost?” Bucknam says. “Where are we going to house them? What is the alternative?”
Bucknam says she’d prefer to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before committing to a plan of action.
Donovan says the state can’t continue to wait. If getting the out-of-state inmates home requires capital investments in transitional housing and treatment, then he says lawmakers should find the money needed to build them.
“Yes, it’s going to cost money in terms of making those additional investments,” Donovan says. “But over time it’s going to save money, and make our communities more safe.”