Excessively long criminal sentences account for more than 200 percent of nationwide prison growth over the past several decades. These sentencing trends have resulted in overcrowded facilities and place an unnecessary burden on taxpayers, even though the evidence shows that overly harsh sentences produce diminishing returns, including higher rates of recidivism, and do not make society safer.
In 2018, the Vermont Legislature reestablished a sentencing commission to overhaul state sentencing laws. We have called on the commission to recommend significant changes to Vermont's criminal code to ensure sentences are more reasonable, informed by research and data, and that Vermont reorients its criminal justice system to rely on incarceration only as a last resort.
Among other changes, Vermont should eliminate laws that mandate increased prison time, shorten sentencing ranges broadly, cap all sentences with a maximum of 20 years, raise the Vermont monetary felony threshold to at least $1,000 to match other New England states, and ensure all reforms are applied retroactively so those already serving harsh sentences for the same offenses may seek similar relief. Vermont can also limit the circumstances and the severity of the state's "habitual offender" enhancement, in which the presence of prior felonies can both substantially increase the sentencing range of already lengthy sentences and delay initial parole eligibility.
Through policy reforms like these, Vermont can lead the way in state criminal justice reform and significantly reduce the number of people in its prisons serving out extreme, counter-productive, and costly sentences.