ACLU of Vermont Statement on Proposed 2020 Criminal Justice Reforms

MONTPELIER, Vt.–Final recommendations for potentially far-reaching criminal justice reforms will be discussed at a meeting today of state leaders and the nonpartisan Council of State Governments (CSG). The recommendations will be based on a comprehensive review of available data by CSG, and will provide state officials with a range of policy options for improving outcomes in Vermont’s criminal justice system.

CSG’s review identified as top priorities reforming Vermont’s community supervision system, improving system-wide data collection to address glaring racial disparities, and redeploying millions of taxpayer dollars away from prisons and into community-based programs.

ACLU of Vermont Executive Director, James Lyall:

“This report underscores just some of the ways Vermont’s justice system is out of step with best practices, and the need for immediate and fundamental changes. The ACLU and our supporters urge policymakers to build on the working group’s recommendations with smart, ambitious, and evidence-backed reforms this year, and to invest in the people of Vermont, not prisons.

These findings center around one aspect of Vermont’s criminal justice system, community supervision. That is for good reason: Vermont’s parole, probation, and furlough system returns people to prison at the highest rate in the country—a shocking statistic.

It’s important, however, to recognize that this report doesn’t address other critically needed reforms—like sentencing, bail, and greater prosecutor accountability—that could further reduce the number of people in our prisons, and improve outcomes for our communities.

Vermonters have seen that prisons are fundamentally violent and inhumane—and that we have a collective responsibility to prioritize community-based alternatives that lift up the humanity and dignity of all Vermonters. For these reasons, the ACLU and our supporters call on legislators to take up the working group’s recommendations with a sense of urgency.”

Among the key findings of the Justice Reinvestment process to date:

After years in decline, Vermont’s prison population is again increasing.

That trend is fueled in part by our community supervision system—probation, parole, and furlough—which returns people to prison at the highest rate in the country, 70% of those for technical violations like lack of housing and curfew violations.

Vermont’s prisons continue to have some of the worst racial disparities in the country.

Vermont prosecutors secure convictions through plea deals at the highest rate in the country—99% of all criminal cases in Vermont never go to trial—underscoring the enormous power of elected state’s attorneys, and the need for transparency around their decision-making.

Inadequate data collection and reporting by state’s attorneys, courts, and DOC stand in the way of addressing racial disparities and making informed policy decisions.

The CSG report is part of a “Justice Reinvestment II” process, a collaborative effort of criminal justice experts, representatives from the three branches of state government, and other stakeholders. An earlier Justice Reinvestment process in 2007 has been credited with driving a 25 percent drop in Vermont’s incarcerated population over the past decade.