Criminal Justice Advocates Oppose Prison Expansion, Renew Calls for Investments in Community-Based Alternatives

Advancing proposals to expand Vermont’s prisons would be a step backwards for criminal justice reform

MONTPELIER, Vt. - The ACLU of Vermont, The Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, and the Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative are raising concerns about a proposal that would expand Vermont’s correctional system and are calling on decision makers to continue pursuing community-based alternatives to incarceration and other tools to safely reduce our prison population.

The HOK report presented to the legislature on Tuesday assumes that within the next five years, Vermont will incarcerate at least 500 more people than we do today, and approximately 100 more people than were incarcerated at the start of the pandemic. Over the next couple weeks lawmakers are being asked to decide on a new prison proposal so that planning can move forward while the legislature is not in session.

The proposals put forth in the report could reverse the extensive efforts of Vermont legislators to successfully reduce the number of incarcerated Vermonters. In March, Vermont’s prison population reached a historic low of 1,227 Vermonters, the lowest point in more than two decades, representing a thirty percent reduction in just two years and a forty-five percent reduction overall. This trend, which began well before the pandemic, is a direct result of the legislature’s sustained commitment to creating a “smarter criminal justice system.”

The report ignores that progress and does not consider any alternative strategies to further reduce the prison population by investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration. Further, it disregards recently enacted reforms such as Justice Reinvestment and practices employed during the pandemic that drastically reduced Vermont’s reliance on prisons. If enacted, this proposal also threatens anticipated savings that would be invested in essential supports and services.

ACLU of Vermont Advocacy Director Falko Schilling: “Now is not the time to move backwards with criminal justice reform in Vermont. This proposal disregards years of hard work across our system that safely reduced the prison population by hundreds of people. It is baffling that this proposal envisions locking up 500 more people without justification when all the trends are in the opposite direction and the evidence is clear that we can and should imprison fewer Vermonters. We must continue to move towards a system makes incarceration a last resort, respects the humanity of the people involved in the criminal legal system, and stops wasting taxpayer money to put more people in cages that don’t need to be there.”

Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative Executive Director Ashley Messier: The HOK report never examines the opportunities to invest in community-based alternatives to incarceration. One thing is simple, if we build new beds, they will absolutely be filled. This continued conversation about new prison construction in Vermont is out of touch with the work that is being done on the ground by service providers and in national context with decarceration trends and treatment services. Building bigger prisons, even here in Vermont, will only continue to accelerate mass incarceration. If our legislature continues to propose to study all of the options, why are they continuing to intentionally leave studying community-based services and alternatives out of the conversation?” 

Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence Executive Director Karen Tronsgard-Scott: “We agree with the legislature that the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility needs repair or replacement – and that the building stands in the way of meaningful rehabilitation and support for Vermont’s incarcerated women. We believe that any new women’s facility should be smaller and better tailored to the unique needs of incarcerated women. While the legislature is considering allocating hundreds of thousands of dollars to planning for new buildings, community-based programs continue to be underfunded. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative demonstrated that Vermont can reduce the number of individuals we incarcerate if we invest in the right community-based supports. If we invest in community-based programs, we could have a significant and positive impact on community safety and the number of people we incarcerate. If Justice Reinvestment has taught us anything, it is that we need to invite stakeholders to the table for these conversations. As the Legislature moves forward, we will need all voices to help shape the solution.”

Our organizations are calling on the legislature to reject efforts to move forward with prison construction without fully examining how we can continue safely reducing our state prison population by implementing proven policy solutions and investing in community-based alternatives.