Vermont is a leader in restorative justice, which emphasizes less formal approaches that give victims, rather than the government, a greater role in determining the appropriate sentence. Reparative sentencing boards are utilized at the request of the victim in suitable cases involving misdemeanor offenders. When these boards composed of community volunteers convene, they hear from the victim and the offender and develop a restitution agreement that typically involves the restitution needed to make the victim whole and community service. A recent study found offenders processed through these boards were 23 percent less likely to commit a new offense while on probation and 12 percent less likely to re-offend after probation.i
Although Vermont has one of the lowest prison populations in the nation, its prisons have been among the fastest growing in recent years. Vermont’s largest city is home to only 40,000 people, and unlike many other states, its resident population is not growing. Still, between 1996 and 2006, the state’s incarceration rate increased 80 percent, nearly doubling its prison population from 1,058 to 2,123.ii
To keep pace with the growth in the prison population, state spending on corrections increased from 4 percent of state general funds in 1990 to 10 percent of state general funds in 2008.iii While violent and property crime declined sharply in states across the U.S. over the last decade, Vermont’s already low violent crime rate did not drop. In fact, as violent crime declined 31 percent nationally between 1995 and 2005, it increased 2 percent in Vermont.iv
As the number of people in prison climbed, the rate at which released inmates were re-incarcerated remained persistently high. Fifty percent of people released in 2005 were reconvicted of a new crime.v Over several years, policymakers designed numerous innovative strategies, including intensive community-based supervision and substance abuse treatment, to reduce this rate of recidivism, but no data-driven mechanism existed to guide decisions about which local jurisdictions and programs received particular resources. Consequently, policymakers could not track the impact of these programs on recidivism rates and public safety.
In 2007, analyses projected that steep prison population growth would continue into the next decade, increasing 23 percent by 2018.vi Faced with the prospect of contracting for additional capacity in out-of-state facilities or constructing and operating new prisons at an additional cost of between $82 million and $206 million, policymakers had to decide if pouring more taxpayer dollars into prison capacity was the best way to lower the state’s high recidivism rate and increase public safety. With bipartisan leadership from the governor and legislative leaders, and with the support of the chief justice, policymakers in Vermont began to rigorously examine data to determine how best to increase public safety and save taxpayer dollars. They identified the following trends and challenges:
• Property and drug offenders were the fastest growing segment of the prison population, accounting for over half of the increase in the felony prison population between 2000 and 2006.vii
• People in need of substance abuse treatment were not screened prior to sentencing while people in prison were not assessed prior to their release, and the availability of drug treatment inside the prisons was very limited. Although 77 percent of people sentenced to prison for property and drug offenses reported substance abuse disorders, only 13 percent were in an in-prison treatment program.viii
• The state established a reintegration program to provide an intensive set of supervision and community- based services targeted at offenders immediately upon release, but it was under-utilized: although approximately 70 people per month met the program’s requirements, just under half were denied placement on reintegration status due to insufficient housing options in the community. Further, most program participants were not released 90 days prior to their minimum sentence date as permitted by state law.
Based on these findings, in May 2008, the Vermont Legislature approved, and Governor Jim Douglas signed into law, House Bill 859, “An Act Relating to Increasing Substance Abuse Treatment, Vocational Training, and Transitional Housing for Offenders in Order to Reduce Recidivism, Increase Public Safety, and Reduce Corrections Costs” which included:
• The closing and reorganization of several prisons and the establishment of a new 100-bed work camp for male offenders with substance abuse treatment needs;
• The establishment of pilot screening and assessment processes prior to sentencing and prior to release from prison to identify people who are appropriate for treatment and diversion programs;
• The expansion of the Intensive Substance Abuse Treatment Program, a diversion program that provides intensive community supervision, to include a residential treatment option;
• Steps to improve the supervision of high risk offenders, which policymakers estimated should reduce by 10 percent the number of people under community supervision returned to prison:
(1) establishing caseload caps for community corrections officers and assignment of supervision levels as based on the severity of offense and the risk to re-offend;
(2) requiring judges to limit conditions of probation supervision to those that require rehabilitation, increase pro-social behavior, and reduce risk to public safety;
(3) authorizing corrections officials to use electronic monitoring for people placed on conditional reentry, furlough, parole, or probation supervision;
(4) creating an administrative probation program, a form of no-contact supervision, for people convicted of certain nonviolent misdemeanors who pose a low risk of harm to the public; and
(5) expanding transitional housing and job training programs to reduce costly and unnecessary delays for people entering the reintegration program and to reduce their recidivism upon release by 10 percent.ix
With these changes, the revised prison population projection shows that the state will need 436 fewer beds by FY 2018.[x] These bed savings will help reduce the state’s need to contract for out-of-state capacity to house the prison population and avert the need to construct new prisons, yielding an estimated $54 million in net savings between FY 2009 and FY 2018.xi
Policymakers opted to reallocate $3.9 million of the projected savings over the next two years for recidivism-reduction strategies. In FY 2009, the state will reallocate $600,000 to design and implement an assessment tool to identify people with substance abuse needs prior to release and expand in-prison substance abuse treatment and vocational training in a new 100-bed work camp for men. The plan also reallocates $3.3 million in FY 2010 for electronic monitoring, a new residential component for the Intensive Substance Abuse Program, and expanded capacity for the transitional housing program to include housing assistance and life skills training.