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Vermont’s Incarceration Spike

| September 14, 2011

Vermont’s governor made criminal justice reform a top priority when he took office in January.  He hoped to reduce the state prison population by reforming the parole system and thereby imprisoning fewer non-violent offenders.  However, according to a recent article from the Montpelier Argus, despite seeing a reduction in incarceration of sentenced offenders, Vermont has seen a significant spike in detainees awaiting trial in the last two months (up to a record 406 inmates last month).

About 100 of the inmates are on $10,000 bail or less, indicating predominantly minor charges.  Administrative Judge Amy Davenport dug deeper to determine whether some offenders had been unduly sentenced, but she “didn’t find any blatantly low-level offenses where you ask, ‘Why is this person in jail?’” Some of the cases appear to be minor and low-level, but Judge Davenport maintains that most low-level offenders had deeper problems.  In one case, a defendant had committed one minor underlying crime, but had seventeen violations of his release conditions.  According to Judge Davenport, it becomes an accountability issue at that point.

Legislation was passed several years ago to encourage judges to use home detention in lieu of formal incarceration, but as of Friday, not a single person was held in home detention in Vermont.  According to Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, defense attorneys have been rejected so many times that they don’t bother drafting the motions for it.  “It’s become one of those things where they don’t want to beat their head against the wall.”

Valerio believes that the focus on lowering detainee numbers is helping to fix some of the small problems in the corrections system, but that Vermont is too timid to fix the big ones.  In his opinion, the real solution is to release low-risk inmates and instead use community supervision alternatives to monitor them, but he fears that Vermont’s leaders are too politically scared to take the necessary steps.