January 19, 2023

Contact: Stephanie Gomory, [email protected], 802-223-6304 x111

MONTPELIER, Vt. – The ACLU and its allies are marking five years of Smart Justice Vermont, a statewide campaign launched in January 2018 with the goals of reducing Vermont’s prison population by at least half from its peak and combatting racial disparities in the criminal legal system. In partnership with elected leaders, impacted community members, and a wide range of other stakeholders, the campaign has already helped to drive a forty percent reduction in the state prison population through policy reforms, impact litigation, and voter education efforts—with new initiatives underway this year. 

ACLU of Vermont Executive Director James Lyall: “Over the past five years, Smart Justice Vermont has won transformative changes and helped drive a forty percent reduction in the state prison population. We are grateful to all the Vermonters who continue to insist that our state must invest in people over prisons, and we look forward to building on this tremendous progress in the years ahead. Together, we can create a justice system that is fair, equitable, and focused on community-based solutions.”

Smart Justice is part of a nationwide movement to address the crisis of mass incarceration and systemic racism in the criminal legal system. Through decades of so-called “tough on crime” policies, Vermont’s prison population had swelled from under 500 to more than 2,200 people by 2009, requiring the state to rely increasingly on out-of-state prisons and resulting in some of the most extreme racial disparities in the country. While the state’s social safety net has been chronically underfunded, annual spending on Vermont’s criminal legal system, including police and law enforcement, increased by over 220% over four decades to more than half a billion dollars per year.

Recognizing the need for more effective and humane investments, and data-informed, evidence-based approaches to public policy, the Smart Justice Vermont campaign has celebrated multiple, historic victories:

  • In 2018, the campaign highlighted for voters the critical yet often unseen role of Vermont’s elected state’s attorneys, while supporting smarter, fairer prosecutorial practices at the local level.
  • In 2019, the ACLU published its Blueprint for Smart Justice; several of its policy recommendations—including reforms to our bail system, sentencing laws, and community supervision—have since been introduced and signed into law. The same year, the ACLU won a unanimous Vermont Supreme Court ruling in Zullo v. State, hailed as a landmark victory for racial justice and police accountability.
  • In 2020, following nationwide protests against police brutality and impunity, Vermont adopted strict limits on police use-of-force and discriminatory face recognition technology. The state legislature also declared its intention to build a “smarter criminal justice system” through Justice Reinvestment (JRI). That initiative has led to hundreds fewer people being sent back to prison every year for technical violations like missing curfew or not having “adequate housing.”
  • In 2021, the Vermont Supreme Court again sided with the ACLU, ensuring that Vermont prosecutors can’t use the U.S. Border Patrol to eviscerate the protections of our state constitution.
  • In 2022, after four years of sustained advocacy—and after JRI data analysis confirmed that Black people in Vermont are disproportionately arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated for drug offenses—Vermont established the Division of Racial Justice Statistics to help address these persistent injustices.

Vermonters from across the political spectrum have consistently voiced strong support for these efforts. In a poll of Vermont voters last year, more than seventy percent said greater access to services and rehabilitative programs is a better way to prevent crime than sending people to prison. A poll by UVM’s Center for Rural Studies in 2020 reached a similar conclusion: nearly four in five Vermonters support reducing the number of people incarcerated in Vermont through investments in community-based alternatives. Another 2020 poll found “strong, consistent, and broad-based support” for criminal justice reform in Vermont, and a 2018 poll indicated widespread public support for candidates who favored alternatives to policing and incarceration.

Despite high levels of public support, Vermont’s progress is now in jeopardy, with a growing number of people being incarcerated on cash bail as they await trial, new proposals to expand criminal penalties, and the opposition of law enforcement leaders to increased oversight and accountability. And, at a time when Vermont communities need resources to address housing insecurity, mental health needs, and a worsening opioid epidemic, legislators are considering whether to fund plans for a major expansion of the state prison system through construction of a multimillion-dollar prison complex—rather than prioritizing more effective, lower cost, community-based programs.

ACLU of Vermont President Bill Boyd: “For all the progress we have made, Vermonters are still faced with the same choice: do we address the root causes of the many challenges facing our communities by investing in those communities, or do we pursue the same failed strategies of the past? The people of Vermont have been crystal clear that they want us to invest in people, not prisons. As always, we all have a shared responsibility to make sure our elected representatives get that message and act on it.”

A summary of five years of Smart Justice Vermont is here.

ACLU’s Blueprint for Smart Justice Vermont is here.