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Vermont ACLU Announces 'Blueprint' For Criminal Justice Reform

Three people stand behind a podium with an ACLU banner on it.
Peter Hirschfeld
The ACLU's Falko Schilling, left, Ashley Messier, center, and James Lyall, right, unveiled a series of legislative proposals Tuesday that they say could reduce Vermont's prison population.

The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union unveiled a legislative agenda Tuesday it says elected officials could use to cut the state’s prison population in half. Items on the agenda include the elimination of cash bail and the decriminalization of many drug crimes.

Vermont has seen its prison population dip over the past decade. But ACLU executive director James Lyall says the state is still sending too many people to jail.

“The fact is, for all the progress that we have made, the number of incarcerated Vermonters today is still double what it was just 30 years ago," Lyall said. "And we still have some of the worst prison racial disparities in any state in the country."

The push by the ACLU comes as state officials embark on a “justice reinvestment” initiativeto remedy deficiencies in Vermont’s criminal justice system.  Gov. Phil Scott created the working group with an executive order in July, and its members include the state's corrections and health commissioners, the executive director of racial equity and several lawmakers.

The group will issue a report with policy change recommendations no later than Dec. 1. Falko Schilling, policy director at the ACLU of Vermont, said his organization has developed a “blueprint” for what those reforms should look like.

“This would mean decriminalizing activities that shouldn’t be crimes,” Schilling said Tuesday. “It would also mean providing more treatment and support for people with mental health issues and substance use disorders, and expanding alternatives to incarceration, such as diversion and restorative justice.”

Specifically, Schilling said lawmakers should decriminalize sex work, as well as possession of all illicit drugs.

"When 6,000 children a year in Vermont are left without one or both of their parents to incarceration, our system is failing us." — Ashley Messier, Vermont chapter of the ACLU

Ashley Messier, an organizer at the ACLU, said survivors of abuse and people with mental health conditions are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates in Vermont. And she said imprisonment often exacerbates issues that are better addressed with treatment and counseling.

“We all want a system that is humane, equitable and healing,” Messier said Tuesday. “When 6,000 children a year in Vermont are left without one or both of their parents to incarceration, our system is failing us.”

The ACLU also wants heightened scrutiny of charging and sentencing decisions made by county prosecutors and judges, including so-called “Conviction Integrity Units” to address wrongful convictions and prosecutorial misconduct.

The ACLU said better data collection by state’s attorneys would help illuminate the causes of the racial disparities in Vermont jails, where black people are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than white people.

Schilling said the ACLU's proposals for better mental health treatment, and alternatives to incarceration, could require upfront financial investments by lawmakers. But he said over time, the plan would lead to a reduction in Vermont’s nearly $150 million annual corrections budget.

“One thing that is very exciting about this process is they call it 'justice reinvestment' for a reason," Schilling said. "If we look at smarter criminal justice policies, there’s an opportunity to take the money that we’re using today and use it smarter."

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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