Vermont ACLU Looks To Cut State's Prison Population In Half

Jan 24, 2018

The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has launched a campaign that will try to cut the state's halve the prison population in Vermont.

The rate of incarceration in Vermont has dropped by a third over the last decade, according to a new survey by Pew Charitable Trusts. But officials with the Vermont ACLU says the state still jails far more people than it needs to, and it’s assembled a roster of state and national figures to press for bail and sentencing reforms.    

That push began Wednesday with testimonials from people like Bill Cobb, deputy director of the ACLU’s national push to curb incarceration rates.

Cobb says he knows a thing or two about the out-of-state prison where more than 200 Vermonters are currently serving their sentences.

Back in the 1990s, Cobb spent two years at the Camp Hill Prison, located just outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

About 200 current Vermont inmates are currently housed at Camp Hill Prison in Pennsylvania. This fall, VPR reported that two Vermont inmates, Roger Brown and Tim Adams, passed away in prison at Camp Hill.

“I can testify that those individuals are not getting better because of the time that they’re doing away from their families incarcerated out of their states,” Cobb says.

Cobb was on hand at a Statehouse press conference on Wednesday morning  to help launch the ACLU’s “Campaign for Smart Justice Vermont.”

Camp Hill Prison in Pennsylvania where Bill Cobb was in the 1990s and where approximately 200 current Vermont inmates are currently housed.
Credit Marc Levy / Associated Press

Cobb says racial disparities in the inmate population in — one out of every 14 black men in Vermont are in jail — are more pronounced than in any other state in the country.

All told, Cobb spent six years in prison in the 1990s, for robbery, among other things.

Today, he says, he’s a husband, a father, and a contributing member of society. Cobb says there’s nothing exceptional about him, and that there’s no reason to think the 1,700 people serving time in Vermont right now aren’t capable of the same kind of turnaround.

"Your community was not safer by locking me up." — Ashley Sawyer, Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform

“Let’s think about the possibilities if we responded to crime, drug usage, differently,” Cobb says.

New research from Pew Charitable Trusts shows that Vermont has done a better job than any other state at bringing down the rate of incarceration over the past decade. But while incarceration rates may have come down off their peak, Vermont jails twice as many people today as it did in the late 1990s.

“I graduated high school in the late '90s. It’s crazy to think that the prison population has doubled in half my lifetime and that that is consistent with our national trends,” says Nico Amador, a community organizer at the ACLU of Vermont.

Amador says the ACLU will be working at a grassroots level to galvanize support for policies needed to reduce the prison population, and eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Amador says achieving that goal will require statutory reforms to bail and sentencing policies.

He says the ACLU will be trying to build political support at the county level for a more progressive prosecutorial approach from locally elected state’s attorneys.

Amador says the campaign is also about changing the state’s approach criminal justice more generally.

When Vermont Inmates Die, It's Hard To Get The Full Story: Explore VPR's Full Death Behind Bars Series

“We as a society really have to decide and reach some consensus about what direction we want to move in,” Amador says.

Ashley Sawyer, a member of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, served time in a Vermont prison. Like Cobb, she says she too can testify to the ineffectiveness of incarceration as a rehabilitation strategy.

“A good saying is, ‘Prison is crime school,’” Sawyer says. “So you took someone who had no experience with the criminal justice system, no experience with violent crime. I know now.”

Scott's corrections plan

Earlier this month, the Scott administration proposed spending $150 million over the next 10 years on the 900-bed prison facility. Sawyer says Vermont could use those resources more judiciously.

“Your community was not safer by locking me up,” Sawyer says. “What would have made your community safer is taking a small, small amount of money and investing in treatment, investing in better housing, investing in programs.”

The Vermont ACLU says that’s exactly the approach it will be pressing lawmakers and the governor to embrace.

This post was edited on 1/25/18 to correct a misspelling