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Corrections Officials Call For New Solutions To Prison Bed Shortage

Vermont corrections officials are looking to revisit a 2010 provision that mandates the release of nonviolent, low-risk inmates, as a partial solution to the state's shortage of available beds.

Five years ago, legislators passed a law aimed at getting nonviolent offenders out of prison, but new data suggest the effort has had some unintended consequences. Offenders who are released before they’re ready often just end up returning to jail a short time later.

Back in 2010, one of the central planks in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s first gubernatorial campaign was a plan to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders in Vermont prisons.

Audio from this story will be posted at approximately 11 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 19.

He found a willing partner in the Vermont Legislature, which has a keen fiscal interest in reserving limited prison beds only for people who pose a threat to public safety. But policymakers have found that getting people out of jail for good is easier said than done.

Corrections officials now say it is time to revisit a statutory provision knows 808(f). Adopted in 2010, it mandates the release of nonviolent, low-risk inmates who have served their minimum sentence, and are being held behind bars solely for lack of appropriate housing outside prison walls.

?Lisa Menard, the newly minted commissioner of the Department of Corrections, says the concept is a sound one in theory but has been problematic in practice. 

Offender-tracking studies suggest that a majority of inmates released as a result of this policy change just end up back in jail, often after having committed a new crime.

?“To put somebody out in a situation where they’re not set up to succeed,” Menard explains. “Where all their risks and needs aren’t addressed or having the ability to address them in a short period of time, there’s an increased chance they’ll return to jail.”

About 200 inmates are in prison at any given time solely because they lack access to approved housing.

Menard says there’s no doubting the immediate financial benefits of removing nonviolent offenders from prison beds when the state’s operating costs are now close to $70,000 a year.

?“It may be at times more cost effective to rent an apartment,” says Menard. “But perhaps less public-safety oriented or less success-oriented for the offender.”

Menard wants to add an element of departmental discretion to the process used to determine whether inmates are ready for release. And she says she doesn’t think the new standard will harm the effort to get nonviolent criminals out of prison.

The state recently added reentry coordinators to corrections staff which Menard says not only help ensure stable housing, but line up employment opportunities and substance-abuse treatment. 

She says these measures have already reduced the number of inmates serving time solely for lack of housing by about 5 percent.

?“These are fairly new initiatives, and I think given time we’ll see increased success.” Menard said. 

Bennington Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he’s sensitive to the department’s concerns. But he says there has to be a better way to deal with nonviolent offenders.

?“Prison beds in St. Albans and Springfield, probably (aren’t) the best use of those beds,” Sears said.

Sears says he’ll push for increased use of programs like work camps and electronic-monitoring bracelets, measures he thinks might help keep nuisance offenders on the straight and narrow.

?“These devices help us to keep track of these folks,” says Sears. “Mostly non-violent offenders, who really are a pain in the neck.”

Currently, Vermont doesn’t have enough room in state-run prisons to house all of its inmates. About 270 offenders are serving time in out-of-state prisons.
Correction 9:40 a.m. A previous version of this story overstated the number of inmates housed in out-of-state facilities. The above text has been corrected.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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