Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice

The Power of Advocacy

This week we saw the real power of well-organized advocacy. On Tuesday the House voted down a proposed amendment to the Budget Adjustment bill that came to light over the weekend. The issue was the Canteen at the State Hospital in Waterbury. The Canteen has been run for many years as a snack bar where hospital patients approved for special privileges can mingle with other workers in the Waterbury complex. Some patients even work at the Canteen.

The administration closed the Canteen in December to save the modest subsidy it has needed for the past couple of years. Historically, the Canteen paid for itself and many believe that it can be managed to do so again. As the Senate reviewed the Budget Adjustment bill (H.534), they decided to add a provision that requires the Dept. of Mental Health to evaluate the possibility of reopening the Canteen on a cost-neutral basis. When the Senate’s version of Budget Adjustment came to the House, our Appropriations Committee voted to delete the Senate language regarding the Canteen.

Over the weekend, advocates discovered that their hard-fought Senate language was threatened, and mobilized to save it. Many of us received emails in support of the Canteen. On arrival at the Statehouse on Tuesday, we found letters in our mailboxes with hand-written notes imploring us to keep the Senate language. The upshot was that all of the conversation in the cafeteria focused on the Canteen. By the time the issue came to a vote on the House Floor, the proposal to remove the Senate language had support only from a few members of the House Appropriations Committee. The vote to save the Senate language was 115-6 by division of the House (where members stand up to be counted). It was a truly a victory for good advocacy.

Corrections Policy

The Institutions and Corrections committee heard testimony from the active Community Justice Centers in Montpelier, Burlington, Springfield and St. Johnsbury. The committee wanted to hear from them directly regarding the proposed release of up to 350 low risk offenders in an effort to reduce spending in Corrections. The committee wanted to hear what their current capacity is, how the proposal would impact their service and what would need to be done, if anything to help them succeed. The Justice Centers pointed out the need for housing and coordinated services to help them work with the released offenders. As the Committee works through this and the recommendations of the PSG report these are areas that will need to be looked at and considered to help the offenders with a successful reintegration and to reduce recidivism.

Restructuring Corrections

State government departments (including the Department of Corrections-DOC) are looking at ways to reduce their budgets and at the same time maintain essential services, safe communities, and citizen access to justice. In 2008, the Corrections and Institutions Committee worked with the Council of State Governments to look at policy changes for term probation, reintegration, electronic monitoring, transitional housing, and alternatives to arrest of non-violent misdemeanants. The committee’s good work resulted in the passage of the Justice Reinvestment legislation, H.859 (Act 179). Act 179 called for a series of progress reports and benchmarks concerning corrections population management and responses to overcrowding. The bill called for looking at the probation caseload capacity and assess the risks to re-offend to reduce recidivism, along with screening and assessments of each felony drug and property offender for substance abuse treatment needs prior to release. The legislation called for the feasibility and costs of establishing transition units, reorganization of the correctional facilities, the Dale Correctional Facility in Waterbury to be closed, the mission of the facility in Windsor changed to be a therapeutic community in a work camp model, and the facility in St. Albans reconfigured to house and program women.

The legislation also called for the Commissioner of Corrections and the Court Administrator to report on implementing a pilot program to provide screening, assessment and triage in order to:

  • divert individuals with substance abuse issues committing felony property and drug crimes from the criminal justice system and incarceration to treatment;
  • report on the prevalence of co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders among those committed to the custody of the Commissioner of Corrections and
  • progress in establishing a comprehensive system of community substance abuse treatment services.

Act 179 called for a detailed description of the progress made on increasing the use of electronic monitoring and the bill gave the DOC specific policy direction to move beyond the initial pilot program with expanded criteria for use for offenders on community release status.

To me, the work done by the Committee in H.859 laid the groundwork for reducing recidivism and also called for collaborative work between the Department of Corrections and the Court Administrator and the Department of Human Services in pilot projects.

The latest consultants’ report: "Challenges for Change: Corrections Rebalance," challenges the DOC to "improve the recidivism rate and community safety while spending 8% less in FY11 and FY12. The report specifies redesign options stating that: "Vermont may be incarcerating some offenders who do not need to be incarcerated and would be less likely to recidivate if not incarcerated in traditional setting. Substance abuse treatment that uses early evidence-based intervention can also reduce recidivism."

The reports list of some design options (many of the same options in H.859) for reducing the prison population include:

  • Lower cost alternatives for public intoxication -including expanding the Chittenden County pilot
  • Establish lower cost alternatives for weekenders
  • Probation time limits for non-violent offenders
  • Identify lower cost alternatives for non-violent offenders with terms of less than 90 days
  • Increase substance abuse treatment interventions at evidence-based appropriate times
  • Provide increased transition housing of at least 200 beds in 2011
  • Either close a state facility or move out-of-state placements in state to replace beds used currently by non-violent less than 90 days offenders, weekend sentenced offenders and or offenders lacking transitional housing.

In FY2011, a one-time investment of $5 million will be made available to the Department of Corrections to establish a transition housing program, weekender program, chemical dependency treatment programs, and other measures that evidence shows will decrease recidivism.

While the latest consultants’ report is very similar to Act 179, we must ask: “What if the DOC doesn't realize the savings through recidivism in the time frames outlined?” Sometimes money has to be spent up front to save, or you may not see the savings for a given time period. The report shows a reinvestment of $5M with an aggressive $15M in savings, but will reducing recidivism take more time to see the resulted savings? Though reductions in DOC spending and reducing recidivism are goals most of us want, we should not kid ourselves. If this is not accomplished as challenged by reaching the goals for reducing recidivism, savings will be accomplished through cuts in the Department of Corrections. So, are we putting the cart before the horse without the inclusion of the judiciary restructuring? And who's holding the axe?

Judicial Reorganization

Right now, all sectors of state government are looking at ways to reduce their budgets and at the same time preserve essential services. The judicial branch is no exception. H.470 proposes a number of measures to restructure the Vermont courts in response to the recommendations of the Commission on Judicial Operation.

In 2009, the Legislature directed the Supreme Court to appoint and convene a Commission on Judicial Operation composed of members of the three branches of government and citizens of Vermont. Among the areas the Legislature asked the Commission to address were consolidation of staff across courts in individual counties and statewide; regionalization of court administrative functions at the state and county level; use of technology, including video technology; and finally a way to reduce the Judiciary budget adopted by the Legislature for FY2010 by at least $1 million.

The Commission’s proposal of a Unified Court System includes, but is not limited to these recommendations:

  • Consolidate trial court operations into a single Superior Court with four divisions: Civil, Criminal, Probate and Family;
  • Make all judicial branch employees state employees paid according to state pay scale with the same benefits;
  • Consolidate management of court operations through appointment of one court manager/clerk in twelve counties;
  • Reduce the number of Probate Judges from 14 part-time to 5 full time judges; and
  • Eliminate the judicial duties of assistant judges.

The long-term goal in creating a new and unified judicial system is to reduce the judiciary’s budget and enhance the efficient and effective delivery of judicial services without compromising the public’s ability to justice.

There will likely be much more testimony and discussion before H.470 comes to the full House for debate.

What's up with Progressives and Pot?

Back in November I wrote a blog Former Cop Says Legalize All Drugs after Richard van Wickler from from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) spoke at the Progressive caucus in Burlington about the failed war on drugs. His presentation was amazing and very convincing in its argument that legalization, not de-criminalization, is the only way to end the drug problem we are currently facing. It could also bring the state some revenue. This Friday, Jan. 15, 2010 the Vermont Alliance for Intelligent Drug Laws and the Marijuana Policy Project are hosting a lobby day at the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier. They are inviting citizens to join them in the cafeteria to show support for two pieces of legislation. In the afternoon Richard Van Wickler will make his case to legislators. H. 150 “An Act Establishing a Sensible State Marijuana Policy" was introduced by Rep. David Zuckerman, P (the companion bill S.71 was introduced by Jeanette White, D) and would make the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana a non-criminal offense subject to a civil fine of up to $100 without the possibility of jail time. An additional bill, S. 226 "An Act Relating to Medical Marajuana Dispensaries", introduced by Sens. White, Miller, and Shumlin would authorize five state-licensed non-profit compassion centers that could dispense medical marijuana to cardholding patients in Vermont. Rather than forcing Vermont patients suffering from debilitating illnesses to either grow their own marijuana, a costly and difficult process, or turn to the illicit market, this legislation would solve the problem of access by making doctor-recommended medicine available to those who need it. Our party platform regarding Criminal Justice says; "Progressives are committed to public safety. We will work to: Discontinue the failed “war on drugs and limit incarceration to offenders who pose a threat to public safety (among other things.) If you can't make it to the Statehouse on Friday send a message to your representatives and let them know what you think of this legislation.

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

The war on drugs isn't working and is draining funds from needed areas like housing and health care.

Chittenden County Progressives and UVM Campus Progressives are bringing Richard Van Wickler, a NH corrections officer and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition to speak in Burlington on Wednesday, October 21. He will give a presentation on the failed war on drugs and legalization of marijuana.

Progressive Senator Tim Ashe will talk about where resources are needed in Vermont and Progressive Rep. David Zuckerman will share past bills and accomplishments around this issue.

Richard Van WicklerVan Wickler will speak at 7:00 pm in Room 422 of the UVM Davis Center. The Progressive County reorganization meeting will follow the presentation and Q&A.

According to Van Wickler: "We are a country that every two weeks is building 900 new jail beds and hiring 150 new correctional officers. At the same time spending on education and building new universities is in retrograde and violent crime in our country is at a 30-year low."

Syndicate content