Criminal justice reform in Vermont is an issue that has been steadily gaining momentum and action in the community, especially over the last several years.
This ongoing discussion of what criminal justice in Vermont should look like has the distinct possibility of sparking some radical changes to the system, from the way prosecutors operate, to the severity of sentencing, and to the facilities themselves.
Rich Eckrote, an adjunct professor at Castleton University as well as district manager for the Rutland Probation and Parole Office, said that closing the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility has been raised multiple times over the last several years by the interim commissioner at the Vermont Department of Corrections, James Baker.
Baker’s ideas resemble models out of Europe that are focused on recovery and rehabilitation of inmates and emphasize a therapeutic environment.
“We need to reevaluate how we house, not just female offenders, but all offenders,” Eckrote said. “These are vulnerable people who often make mistakes due to significant trauma. It’s important that these facilities don’t make them worse due to a negative environment.”
According to professor Bradley Hunt, coordinator of Castleton’s criminal justice program, Vermont spends more money on prisons than on education, when putting people in prison is already more expensive than sending people to college.
“And where does it get us?” said Hunt.
Hunt discussed how prison is used to serve several functions. Incarceration is intended as a punishment for criminal behavior, and retribution. The institution of prison also acts as a deterrence, he said. That Vermont has one of the lowest rates of incarceration nationally may support that concept.
Prison is also used to incapacitate, removing people who’ve committed crimes in hopes that it makes the community safer. But according to Hunt, the majority of people who have been incarcerated or detained will eventually be reintroduced to society. Poor treatment of inmates, including isolating them from the community, hurts not just inmates, but the rest of the community.
Concerning the role of the community has to play in reforming criminal justice in Vermont, Eckrote said that the community is more involved now than ever before. There are restorative justice movements and legislation, and programs working to repair harm done to the community.
That leads to the idea that prison should be used for rehabilitation. But is prison effective as a pathway to rehabilitation? Vermont spends a lot of money on healthcare for inmates, and it has one of the highest rates of recidivism in the country, often for technical violations.
Both Hunt and Eckrote, as well as Josh Comalli, a Castleton University junior interning at Marble Valley Correctional Facility, said that there needs to be a focus on supplementing prison with alternatives more conducive to long-term recovery and reformation.
“With no re-entry plan or support from the community, it’s easy to fall back,” said Hunt.
To lower the rate of recidivism, Comalli said that examining the reasons behind the technical violations is important. He cited examples of difficult situations, such as a lack of access to transportation impacting appointments and job opportunities, being important factors in considering if re-incarceration was necessary.
“There are usually underlying reasons why there’s a violation,” Comalli said. “It’s important to address those and figure out how we can help.”
According to both Hunt and Eckrote, Vermont is one of the states leading the charge in transforming the criminal justice system, due in large part to dedication from the community and leadership in addressing the problems that the community faces.
“We’re heading straight into a long period of change,” Eckrote said. “What happened at the (Chittenden Regional Correctional) Facility is truly terrible, and it is serving as a catalyst for serious changes that need to happen. What is going to result is the formation of a better system for the entire community.”