Lawmakers, criminal justice experts & others talk prison & jail reform in Burlington

Local News

The news website VTDigger invited a former leader of a New York City grass-roots effort to close the city’s main jail complex to Burlington Tuesday night to talk about jail and prison reform. More than a hundred people listened to him at the University of Vermont’s Davis Center.

In 2017, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio released a plan to close Rikers Island within ten years. Since then, the New York City Council has voted to close the notorious jail complex by 2026. These steps were largely in response to pressure from the #CLOSErikers reform campaign, which Janos Marton once led. “You’re right that there are slight differences between the problems that jails and prisons face state to state, but the culture of our jail and prison system is problematic in virtually every state in the country,” he said. “It’s hard to even name where things are going well.”

Calls for jail and prison reform in Vermont have grown louder since Seven Days published allegations in early December of extensive drug use and sexual misconduct by corrections staff at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington. The state’s corrections commissioner resigned about two weeks after the allegations were made public.

A state investigation is underway, and it’s expected to continue until sometime in April. “There’s still no independent reporting mechanism for women who might be experiencing abuse or harassment inside of the facility,” Rep. Selene Colburn of Burlington said. “The only reporting line still goes straight back to Corrections, and they need to fix that.”

However, Vermont lawmakers were already working on reform efforts prior to the Seven Days piece. The Senate Judiciary Committee has been working on what it calls ‘justice reinvestment’ legislation. It would create a data-driven program to look at who’s behind bars in Vermont and why they’re incarcerated. The program would allow many nonviolent offenders to be automatically released upon serving their minimum sentence. “Money that you save in not sending offenders out of state (can be) reinvested into community-based programs that are evidence-based and have been proven to reduce recidivism,” Sen. Dick Sears of Bennington said. “Every time we reduce recidivism, we reduce the crime rate.”

“In some ways, Vermont is already doing better than other places in the country, and it should be proud of that, but I think everywhere in the United States can do better,” Marton said. In particular, he pointed to Vermont having one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, as well as Vermont being one of just two states in which all inmates are allowed to vote while behind bars. Maine is the other state with full inmate voting rights.

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