Investing in people, not prisons

Vermonters support criminal justice reform, and four in five want to reduce our overreliance on prisons by investing in community-based alternatives. Policymakers have responded and have reduced our prison population by about 40 percent from its peak over a decade ago. Still, there is much more we need to do to ensure our communities have the resources they need and that prisons are used only as a last resort.

A proposal advanced by the Scott Administration would jeopardize that progress, expanding Vermont’s prison system at enormous costs to incarcerated people and taxpayers, while ignoring the opportunity we have to advance thoughtful, evidence-driven reforms to our criminal legal system and reduce our overreliance on prisons. We issued a letter to Vermont's legislators urging them to reject this proposal—but your elected leaders need to hear from you, too.

Tell your legislator to reject unnecessary and costly prison expansion

The current proposal asks the legislature to spend $15.5 million over the next two years as a down payment on new prison construction to replace and expand the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF). The plan is estimated to cost a total of at least $71.5 million, though the administration’s own estimates suggest that cost would be much higher. Proposals for additional prison construction are expected to cost well over $500 million.

If approved, this plan would expand the size of Vermont’s prison system far beyond its current needs, and without consideration for the impact reforms and investments would make in further reducing the number of prison beds needed in our state.

To be clear, the conditions in Vermont’s existing prison facilities are deplorable, with chronically low morale among staff and incarcerated people alike. People in prison and those who are re-entering their community need more support, and we must prioritize investments in improving the services they receive as soon as possible.

The administration’s approach to the problem is entirely backwards. The proposal inexplicably fails to consider any community-based alternatives that could serve incarcerated populations better, sooner, and at lower cost. Nor does it offer concrete ways to improve the lives of people currently incarcerated by the state, either within facilities themselves or by expanding community-based services.

Rather than focusing attention on building a massive new prison that only delays improving conditions for people in prison by another 5-8 years, we urge the legislature to fund programs and services that would improve the lives of those currently incarcerated—and staff that work in the prison system—as soon as possible.

Take action

Over the last 5 years, the ACLU of Vermont has outlined numerous policy proposals that would reduce the number of people incarcerated in Vermont prisons, several of which are under consideration in the legislature.

For example, in Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, more than half of the people incarcerated are being held pre-trial. They have not been convicted of a crime, and yet, they must await trial from prison, disconnecting them from their loved ones, their workplaces, and more. Ending cash bail statewide and ensuring that only people who present a true public safety threat are held in prison would greatly reduce the amount of space needed in Vermont’s prisons.

Other possible reforms include revising minimum sentencing guidelines, decriminalizing drug possession for personal use, advancing compassionate release and second look legislation for aging Vermonters, and increasing access to restorative justice and diversion programs—to name a few.

The administration’s prison construction plan comes at a time when our communities need investment and support to address extreme housing insecurity, soaring mental health needs, a worsening opioid epidemic, vast racial and economic injustices, perpetually underfunded education programs, and more. Investments in programs and services that meet our basic needs help reduce crime and support healthy, stable communities.

Before committing millions of taxpayer dollars to new prison construction and expansion, we urge Vermont legislators to focus on expanding alternatives to traditional prisons—including smaller, regional facilities and community-based supports and re-entry programs—and to continue reducing Vermont’s prison population through evidence-based policy reforms.

Vermont spends $95,000 annually for each person it incarcerates. By contrast, supervising someone in the community costs roughly $9,000 a year. When we prioritize policies and programs that keep Vermonters living in their communities, not only do we make our state more humane, equitable, and connected—we can also save millions of dollars in annual spending, which is money that can be re-invested in our communities.

We need to invest in people, not prisons. Tell your legislator to reject the administration’s prison construction proposal.