Media Contact

Kate Connizzo, communications director, [email protected]

January 24, 2018

Statewide advocacy campaign designed to cut Vermont’s prison population in half

MONTPELIER— At a statehouse press conference today, the ACLU of Vermont announced the launch of Smart Justice Vermont, a statewide advocacy campaign to reduce Vermont’s prison population by 50% and eliminate racial disparities through bail and sentencing reforms, a prosecutor accountability initiative, drug policy reforms, and by advancing racial and economic justice efforts across the state.

ACLU of Vermont Executive Director James Lyall: “The ACLU and our partners are committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of our communities without putting more and more people behind bars. Smart Justice Vermont will significantly reduce incarceration, end our reliance on out-of-state prisons, and save taxpayer dollars.

“This campaign stands in stark contrast to recent proposals to build a $150 million, 935-bed, private prison. We are advancing a very different vision for Vermont—one that rejects mass incarceration, refuses to support the notorious private prison industry, and instead invests in helping individuals, families, and communities to thrive and succeed.”

Vermont currently incarcerates approximately 1,700 people. While the state has made progress in reducing its prison population in recent years, Vermont still incarcerates three times the number of people it did in the 1980s and 50% more people than it did as recently as the late 1990s.  According to the Sentencing Project, Vermont imprisons Black men at a higher rate than any other state. And all at great cost: the FY17 budget for the Department of Corrections was $142 million.

Smart Justice Vermont is part of the National ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, which was launched in 2014 with a goal of cutting the national prison population of 2.3 million people in half. The campaign has focused on state and local policies that fuel mass incarceration, engaging in groundbreaking work to reform sentencing and parole laws, leading ballot initiatives to reform drug policy, and organizing get-out-the-vote efforts in key District Attorney races, among other initiatives.

In just a few years, the campaign has already had an enormous impact. Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, recently enacted a series of reforms projected to decrease its prison population by 10%. Since New Jersey’s bail reform law took effect January 1st, 2017, the daily population in the state’s jails dropped by 17.2 percent.

ACLU Nationwide Smart Justice Campaign Deputy Director Bill Cobb: “The U.S. is the world’s leading jailer, incarcerating more people, both in absolute numbers and per capita, than any other nation in the world. People are in jail because they can’t afford bail. People are unnecessarily imprisoned for decades because of overzealous prosecutors and mandatory minimums. People are incarcerated who should be receiving mental health or addiction treatment. And all of these scenarios are more likely if you are poor or a person of color. These are patterns that we can change. We’re seeing that start to happen nationwide, and Vermont has the opportunity to be a leader in this movement.”

In addition to legislative reforms and strategic litigation, the campaign’s first major initiative will focus on the role of State’s Attorneys in Vermont’s criminal justice system.

ACLU of Vermont Community Organizer Nico Amador: “In Vermont, roughly 98% of all criminal cases never go to trial, in large part because our harsh sentencing policies leave many defendants with little choice but to accept plea deals. State’s Attorneys—who are all elected officials—have enormous discretion to decide who goes to prison and for how long. It’s time for a conversation between Vermont’s State’s Attorneys and their constituents about how we can end mass incarceration and eliminate racial disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system.”

There is broad public support for the campaign’s goals. A nationwide ACLU poll has shown that 91% of Americans from across the political spectrum believe that our criminal justice system needs fixing, with 71% saying that the United States should reduce its prison population. Another ACLU poll has shown that 89% of voters say it is very important for prosecutors to actively work towards ending mass incarceration with alternatives to prison, and 91% believing that it is important for a prosecutor to prioritize reducing unequal treatment of individuals because of race.

Vermont groups that have joined Smart Justice Vermont as partners include Justice for All, NAACP-Brattleboro, NAACP-Rutland, Rights & Democracy, The Root Social Justice Center – Brattleboro, and Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform.

More information about Smart Justice Vermont is available here.
More information about State’s Attorneys is available here.
The ACLU’s response to the Scott administration’s recently announced private prison plan is available here.