A year ago, we wrote about Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, a coalition of groups (including the ACLU-VT) working to end mass incarceration and establish a more restorative and effective criminal justice system in Vermont. It appears that many in the state agree with this goal. State officials are holding a series of public hearings around the state to gather public opinion on a possible legislative resolution that would call for shifting the focus of the criminal justice system away from incarceration.
Like the majority of Vermonters who have spoken on this issue, we support this important initiative—and we will push our leaders to go beyond words and take meaningful action.
This discussion is part of a broader national conversation that has brought together unlikely partners from across the ideological and political spectrums. This unusual convergence is possible because, in mass incarceration, there’s something for everyone to dislike: it’s exorbitantly expensive, it’s ineffective, it’s inhumane, it’s discriminatory, it’s a counterproductive response to mental illness and substance abuse/addiction, it’s a driver of recidivism and the hollowing out of communities, it’s an unfortunate but predicatable result of an explosion in the number of criminal offenses, and the list goes on.
However, the packed Congressional calendar filling up the rest of this year and the realities of the attention shift to the 2016 elections in the new year raise concerns that the push for reform may lose momentum on the national level.
That is why state-based initiatives will remain so important. It may well be up to the states—those “laboratories of democracy”—to lead the way in demonstrating that smart criminal justice reform will make our communities safer, kinder, healthier, and wealthier. We believe that Vermont should be at the forefront of this effort.
-- Lia Ernst, staff attorney/public advocate