Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, no matter who they are or where they live. Part of a nationwide movement to address the crisis of mass incarceration and systemic racism in the criminal legal system, the ACLU's Smart Justice Vermont campaign aims to transform our criminal legal system so that it is humane, equitable, and rooted in community-based solutions.
Smart Justice launched in 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. By 2023, the campaign had contributed to a forty percent reduction in the state prison population through policy reforms, impact litigation, and voter education efforts, with new initiatives underway in the 2023-24 legislative biennium.
About the Campaign
Vermont has committed to creating a smarter criminal legal system – and it’s working. With continued innovation, we can build on this success. We have both the opportunity and a responsibility to eliminate our overreliance on incarceration and address underlying disparities at every point in the system – from someone's first interaction with law enforcement to when they return to their community. That includes addressing some of the following key areas:
- Bail reform
- Sentencing reform
- Parole & probation reform
- Decriminalization of substance use
- Prosecutor accountability
- Comprehensive and accessible data
- Challenging systemic racism
What makes Vermont unique is our connection to each other – and if we use prisons as a last resort, we can ensure our communities are strong, vibrant, and inclusive.
About Vermont's Criminal Justice System
Between 1980 and 2009, the number of people incarcerated in Vermont’s unified corrections system rose by 363 percent to its peak of 2,220 people. Recognizing the unsustainability of this trend, the state engaged in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, passing reform legislation in 2008 to stem projected additional growth in the state’s incarcerated population. State policymakers also passed legislation in 2011 designed to reduce recidivism by strengthening treatment and reentry support and offering alternatives to incarceration in some situations, among other strategies. Between 2009 and 2017, the state’s incarcerated population declined by nearly 25 percent.
Still, in 2017, 1,546 people were incarcerated under the jurisdiction of the DOC, which was 222 percent higher than the number of people incarcerated under the DOC’s jurisdiction in 1980. By June 2019, the DOC reported that there were 1,708 people incarcerated under its jurisdiction. When people on community supervision are included, the reach of the Vermont justice system is even greater. At the end of 2016, 7,400 people — more than 1 percent of state’s total population — were under some form of correctional control.
During the 2019 legislative session, 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 second “Justice Reinvestment Initiative” process with the Council of State Governments, with the ultimate goal of passing wide-ranging reform legislation in 2020 and building upon the first Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
The ACLU of Vermont's “Blueprint for Smart Justice” is a comprehensive report on the current state of Vermont’s prison system, with a 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 challenge racism in their criminal justice systems and cut incarceration in half.
For additional information on the Blueprint and its recommendations, visit the Blueprint for Smart Justice page.
What can you do to help transform our criminal legal system?
- Please sign our petition to create a smarter legal system in Vermont. Everyone deserves fair treatment, no matter who they are or where they live – and right now, our criminal legal system does not provide that.
- We believe in the power of Vermonters' stories, and we want to hear about your experiences with our current system. Please fill out our story form and share your story, or the story of your loved one. Your story will remain confidential unless you give us explicit permission to share it.
By signing the petition and sharing your story, you can help shape policies that will have a direct impact on the lives of people in Vermont.