There have been efforts in Vermont (introduced as House bill 221) and nationally to consider reforming the criminal justice system, especially as it relates to prison populations, sentencing and (jail) detention of criminal defendants.
It is important to focus on the specific changes that should be made, and to resist sweeping changes that would give the public unintended and unsafe results.
In my opinion, public safety should be the government’s number one priority.
Reducing prison populations is an appropriate goal. The U.S. prison population in 2013 was 2,217,000[i]. Stated otherwise, the prison population is approximately 698 for every 100,000 people (as compared to the United Kingdom, for example, who had 148 for every 100,000.)[ii]
How the government acts to reduce this population can have an effect on our commitment to keep the public safe. To begin we need to continue lengthy sentences for violent offenders and find alternatives for many of the mentally ill and drug addicted.
First, it’s important to know that Vermont has a relatively small prison population per capita as compared to the rest of the country. Vermont ranks 42/50 in this category[iii]. And while serious crimes have been declining nationwide, the incidences in Vermont have slightly increased[iv]. Reports of robberies and other violent crimes received a lot of media coverage throughout Vermont in 2015.
Washington County in particular has seen an increase in violent crime.
Jail and prison populations in Vermont have decreased by 4% between 2014 and 2015[v]. The imprisonment rate in Vermont is 251 people per 100,000[vi]. Other statistics suggest the incarceration has increased and jail, or inmates detained awaiting trial, has decreased.
Minimum sentences received by violent felons have decreased 16.5% between 2004 to 2013 (with a slight increase from 2013-2014). [vii] Sentences for violent offenders in 2004 averaged 75-187 months and 62.6 – 168.8 months in 2014[viii].
As of June 2013, 61% of males in prison committed violent offenses. 37% of women prisoners were considered violent[ix]. These violent offenders should not be part of any prison reduction efforts.
Additionally, sex offenders should have greater, not lesser sentences. Lesser sentences do not reduce recidivism and provide no benefit to anyone but the offender. I am currently prosecuting several sex offenders and more than one have prior verified sex offenses, who have allegedly recidivated and remain on the streets. In Vermont, as of 2014, only 44% of sex offenders were serving their sentence in prison. Society should not tolerate lenient treatment of those who exploit our most vulnerable citizens.
Sentencing should focus on individual and general deterrent, punishment, rehabilitation and in some cases, incapacitation. Most victims (of child sexual assaults) in our office tell me the one thing most important to them is to make sure the defendant does not sexually abuse anyone else. Keeping violent sex offenders in prison and out of the home (most child sex offenses occur in the home) and off the street accomplishes this goal.
Instead, prison reduction efforts should be focused on those with mental health issues, drug addictions and non-violent offenders. Additionally, the legislature should not attempt to reduce the jail population by seeking to reduce those detained pending trial if they are accused of violent crimes.
[Both the detention of violent offenders and drug courts will be discussed in separate articles.]
Creating additional mental health courts is perhaps the best way to reduce incarceration and treat our mentally ill. Far too many mentally ill are being “warehoused” in prisons because of lack of alternatives. If Vermont wants to save money and be morally accountable, there has to be alternatives to incarcerating individuals, who, but for their mental health impairment, would not have committed crimes. Incarcerated individuals who have requested mental health services in Vermont prisons have increased almost 100%. In 2014, over 37% of inmates were on psychotropic medication and 44% of males and 70% of females received mental health services[x]. However, mental health courts should not be available to those who commit serious violent crimes where it would create too great a risk to public safety.
Mental health courts require defendants be held accountable while providing outpatient mental health treatment they need. It could be available for those who are legitimately diagnosed with a DSM-IV, axis I and some axis II disorders. Only Chittenden County currently has a mental health court in Vermont, though they are regularly used throughout the country. I have previously represented the State as a prosecutor in mental health court (in another state) and witnessed fantastic results.
Mental health courts require defendants participate in counseling, take medication if prescribed, attend regular (weekly or bi-weekly) court appearances, and have case managers watching/assisting them to include referring other services to help to find housing, medical care, etc. similar to drug courts. It’s a demanding but effective way to treat offenders. Moreover it is a significant cost savings. Housing an inmate in prison costs approximately $85,000. per year in Vermont and about half the cost if the inmate is sent to Michigan for correctional housing. In order to set up mental health court programs, the legislature would need to approve funding for one case manager and one prosecutor (and perhaps additional judicial support) per venue. This would save taxpayers a considerable amount of money while handling the crisis in a morally responsible way. At the current time the Washington County State’s Attorneys office could immediately send between ten to twenty individuals to a mental health court.
The legislature can find responsible ways to reduce the prison population without jeopardizing public safety. Dealing with the mentally ill who occupy prison space that should be reserved for violent offenders, would be an appropriate step forward.
Daniel M. Cavanaugh is the Chief Deputy State’s Attorney in Washington County. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent a policy statement for the State’s Attorneys of Vermont in general or the Washington County State’s Attorney in particular.
[i] Institute for Criminal Policy Research, World Prison Brief
[iii] Vermont Department of Corrections, 2014 Facts and Figures FY 2014
[v] Department of Corrections, Annual Report FY 2015
[vi] Vermont Department of Corrections, 2014 Facts and Figures FY 2014
[ix] Department of Corrections, Budget Presentation FY 2015
[x] Department of Corrections, Annual Report FY 2015