ACLU of Vermont Report Provides Roadmap for Reducing State’s Prison Population

Co-authored by ACLU and Urban Institute, “Blueprint for Smart Justice” released as Vermont leaders commit to further criminal justice reforms


October 8, 2019

MONTPELIER – The ACLU of Vermont today released its “Blueprint for Smart Justice,” a report on the current state of Vermont’s prison system, with a comprehensive list of detailed strategies for cutting the prison population by half, increasing the use of community-based alternatives, and addressing racial disparities that are among the worst in the nation. The report is intended to support the efforts of state leaders who are working on broad-based criminal justice reform proposals ahead of the coming legislative session.

The report was commissioned by the ACLU’s national Smart Justice Campaign, which collaborated with the Urban Institute to produce a comprehensive, 50-state series of reports, including policy analysis with proposals for states to confront racism in their criminal justice systems and cut incarceration in half.

ACLU of Vermont Executive Director James Lyall: “Vermont and its elected leaders are committed to creating a smarter criminal justice system – and it’s working. With continued innovation, Vermont can serve as a model for other states, and send a clear message that Vermonters care about their communities and want to invest in people, not prisons.”

The Vermont Blueprint offers a list of policy options for continued reform efforts, including drug decriminalization, expanding alternatives to incarceration, investing in treatment for mental health and substance-use conditions, and reforms in Vermont’s bail, sentencing, and parole systems. The report’s findings include:

  • Vermont’s prisons have some of the highest racial disparities in the country, the sources of which are obscured by a lack of criminal justice system data. Although Black people made up just 1 percent of the state’s adult population in 2017, they accounted for 8 percent of admissions to correctional facilities.
  • Prison admissions for violations of probation, parole, and furlough are a key driver of mass incarceration in Vermont. In 2017, an estimated 2 out of every 3 prison admissions fell into this category.
  • Many people in Vermont’s prisons are incarcerated past their minimum release date. As of September 2018, 704 people—63 percent of the sentenced population—were incarcerated beyond their minimum sentence, by an average of just over 2 years.

Smart Justice Organizer Ashley Messier: “The era of mass incarceration has done so much harm to countless Vermonters, including the 6,000 children who are still impacted by parental incarceration today. Working together, we have a golden opportunity to transform our criminal justice system so that it is fair, equitable, and rooted in community-based solutions.”

The ACLU’s report notes that, despite progress in recent years, Vermont is still working to undo decades of “tough on crime” policies.  Between 1980 and 2009, the number of incarcerated Vermonters rose by 363 percent, reaching a peak of 2,220 people before a series of legislative reforms started to reverse the trend. The number of Vermonters in prison today is still double what it was 30 years ago.

The report also highlights the lack of readily accessible criminal justice data in Vermont, and that this serves as a major barrier to addressing racial and geographic disparities. Out of 50 states surveyed, Vermont is the only one that did not provide sufficient data for Urban Institute researchers to conduct a predictive analysis of the impact various reforms would have on Vermont’s incarceration rate.

Polling shows Vermonters overwhelmingly support criminal justice reform, with nearly 70% agreeing it’s important to reduce the number of people in prison.

ACLU of Vermont Advocacy Director Falko Schilling: ‘The actions taken by legislators this session are a powerful articulation of their commitment to reducing Vermont’s reliance on incarceration by engaging in thoughtful criminal justice reforms. Everyone deserves fair treatment, no matter who they are or where they live, and our current system does not provide that. We have both an opportunity and a responsibility to create a smarter criminal justice system for all Vermonters.”

In 2019, Vermont lawmakers charged the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee with pursuing polices to  “create a smarter criminal justice system that prevents avoidable incarceration, returns people to communities without risking public safety, and reduces or eliminates the need for out-of-state prison placements or new prison bed capacity in Vermont.”

As a result, the three branches of Vermont government and stakeholders including the ACLU are now engaged in a “Justice Reinvestment” process with the Council of State Governments, with the ultimate goal of passing wide-ranging reform legislation in 2020. A similar process in 2007 led to a nearly 25% decrease in the number of Vermonters in prison.

The Vermont Blueprint for Smart Justice is available here.

The Blueprints for all 50 states are available here.

More information about the ACLU’s Smart Justice Vermont campaign is available here.