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Vermont ACLU calls on legislators to support prison reforms instead of rebuilding

Vermont Statehouse (file)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Vermont Statehouse (file)

The ACLU of Vermont is calling on state legislators to reject funding that would further a plan to replace the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, and instead move toward community-based initiatives to reduce the prison population across the state.

Governor Phil Scott has asked the legislature to approve over $15 million in funding over two years to continue the planning process to rebuild or replace the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, the only women’s prison in the state.

The ACLU of Vermont sent a letter to legislators this week asking them to reject the administration’s request because it does not include criminal justice reform alternatives. Advocacy Director Falco Schilling said more discussion is needed on how to reduce the prison population rather than spending more money rebuilding infrastructure.

“Looking at things like bail reform. Looking at uniformity of sentencing and use of diversion. And then also sentencing reform in general which is one of the biggest drivers of mass incarceration as we’ve seen year after year increased sentences being added on to crimes without justification for either the ability to help someone in their rehabilitation or in justification for community safety. So I think there’s a number of areas we could continue to look to reduce that prison population and then do that work that hasn’t been done to say what can this system look like if we were to focus more on community-based alternatives to traditional incarceration.”

Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative Executive Director Ashley Messier said legislators have been considering the state of Maine’s re-entry system as a basis for prison reform.

“In Maine it’s five years and less that can go to the re-entry facility. It’s essentially sentence level. I mean the most common sentence is 3 to 5 years. So a good percentage of our population by Maine standards would qualify for the re-entry center. So then we have a big argument to make that why wouldn’t almost all of our population then be in this low security, low risk re-entry center where they can come and go, they can work in the community because that’s what they do in Maine? But Maine also has very different directives, laws, policies, community investment for that to work that we do not currently have here.”

During his briefing on Wednesday Governor Scott said the administration and legislature are looking at a number of options for the state’s prison system. He acknowledged the Maine system is being studied.

“We’re looking at that model in knowing that we need to upgrade that facility. All our facilities are getting older and some are in need of replacement. There’s some other maybe more localized solutions and we are contemplating that. In fact, both in the Bennington area as well as in the Windham County area we are considering both and hope to do a bit in both counties. So we’re looking for all different kinds of solutions to the dilemma we find ourselves in. But I think we’re having good conversations with the legislature about the path forward.”

The ACLU’s Schilling testified Thursday morning before the Vermont House Committee on Corrections and Institutions regarding the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility proposal.