The many challenges Vermont currently faces demand courage, bold thinking, and leadership if they’re to be solved.
In the past, we’ve occasionally had a leader emerge with the courage to initiate needed change, even if it put the leader’s own political future at risk. But far too often, “leadership” focuses on political survival rather than on taking the risks that the solutions require.
Navigating the ship of state through the melting icebergs of unending change is, needless to say, a perilous political journey, but the captain of the ship is responsible for the safety and future of all the passengers on board.
One such “iceberg” is the criminal justice system. The “lock ‘em up crowd” advocates for tougher, faster prosecution and sentencing based on Old Testament punishment doctrine and an imagined “public safety.”
But a fact-informed view of our criminal justice system knows that neither fear of prison nor the death penalty do much to curb crime, as most crimes are committed on impulse. They also know that restorative justice addresses not only the needs of the victim and of society, but also that of the criminal, which leads to lower recidivism and reincarceration rates.
We also know that the lion’s share of crime devolves from expanding poverty, untreated mental illness, and untreated substance abuse disorder. Vermont has taken small steps to address these, but we and much of the nation seem either clueless or unwilling to advance and fund policies that alleviate poverty and hunger, or to expand treatment options for the mentally ill or those addicted to alcohol, street, or pharmaceutical drugs.
Drugs and mental health
For decades, we stood by while the omnipotent pharmaceutical industry, helped by McKinsey, sold addictive drugs with impunity into our poorest communities, even as we prosecuted young men from these communities and sentenced them to long prison terms for selling street drugs. How many of the 263,000 deaths from prescription opioids in the last decade were prosecuted as homicides against Pharma executives?
Meanwhile, Vermont’s poverty rate is slowly rising. So too has the reported incidence of young people suffering from mental health issues.
The number of young people in UVM Medical Center’s emergency room seeking help for serious symptoms of mental stress — such as suicide attempts or ideation, self-harm, eating disorders, and depression — can, on occasion, exceed 20. They may be there for several weeks, as there are very limited treatment referral options.
According to The Atlantic, the number of young people who feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26% in 2009 to 44% in 2021. Vermont has not escaped this ominous change.
The number of residential treatment center options in Vermont for substance abuse disorders is inadequate and the cost is inaccessible to most who live with addiction, though insurance may cover some forms of treatment.
And now, with the anti-reproductive rights faction’s recent Supreme Court success, this country is about to bring forth some half-million unwanted infants each year into an America that generally rejects any new spending for their care. (There were 930,000 abortions last year in the U.S.)
Add to that the expansion of concealed-carry gun rights, which will expand the number of guns flooding into American homes. Just under 20 million guns were bought in the U.S. last year.
These two events bode poorly for addressing the genesis of criminal behavior.
How the justice system works
Meanwhile, in regard to prosecutorial conduct, both reformist and traditional sides are often ill-informed about how the criminal justice system works, which makes clinging to one’s own preferred orthodoxy that much easier.
As in most complex systems that involve people — among them education, health care, the economy, and the environment — policies involving the criminal justice system must be informed by facts rather than emotions if we are to make them effective.
Recently, State’s Attorney Sarah George gave a clear-eyed, apolitical overview of how the system works in statute and in practice that I believe would come as a surprise to many. It did to me.
The process begins when police notify a prosecutor of an alleged crime. Prosecutors review “officer filings” and exercise substantial discretion in how they convey a case into the court system. Professional police work is often a predicate to successful prosecution.
An ill-informed but common assumption is that many reform-minded state’s attorneys just let people off the hook, but that is simply not borne out in process.
“Reform” in the criminal justice system is not about being “soft on crime.” It’s about being fair, transparent, and considering all interests, including those of the alleged perpetrator, the victim, and society at large.
In fact, given the political history of “notch-in-gun” prosecutions, especially in the South and especially against people of color, the wave of informed prosecutorial reform moving through the country today is welcome. It’s driven by many hard-learned lessons.
10% of the state budget
Extrapolating from the 281 known DNA exonerations in the U.S. since the late 1980s, a conservative estimate is that 4 to 6 percent of the U.S. prison population, approximately 20,000 people, have been falsely convicted.
In fact, since the late 1980s there have been as many as 850 exonerations nationwide, according to University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, a leading researcher in the field. We also know that the threat of punishment does little to deter crime. Yet, per capita, the United States imprisons more than almost any other country in the world, including China and Russia.
Vermont spends about $150 million each year on corrections — about 10 percent of the state's general fund budget. It costs $50,000 a year on average to keep a Vermont inmate in jail. The U.S. spends, as a whole, $81 billion a year.
Given Gov. Scott’s “affordability agenda,” what if, as in other complex systems, we were to move that investment upstream to offer treatment for mental illness, substance abuse disorder and also amend our tax system and social safety net systems to reduce poverty and homelessness?
Why not keep them out of prison?
But, no. A recent article in VTDigger lays out a state plan to design a new prison complex. The global architectural design firm HOK, which has 24 offices on three continents, was hired for $282,660 to design a new Vermont prison complex and issued this report. Oddly, the proposed facility would accommodate twice the number of women who are now in prison.
The most damning statistic is from Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Between 2017 and 2019, 85% of the women in jail were there because of supervised-release violations, often the result of poverty or preexisting conditions. According to Tronsgard-Scott, only about a dozen women are currently serving long-term jail sentences — one-sixteenth the population of the projected facility.
Were any of Vermont’s 250 AIA architects consulted? Might it not make more sense to repurpose vacant dorms at Vermont State University in Lyndon, Johnson and Randolph as a low-security facility?
Vermonters must understand that the outcome of this election will say more about our priorities as a society than about the state of law enforcement in Chittenden County. Since crime is nourished by untreated mental health, poverty, hunger, substance abuse, and a tidal wave of available guns and unwanted children, what if we were to address the elements that feed crime instead of just locking up offenders?
We must invest upstream, in prevention, some of the $150 million we spend on punishment today and all the proposed $100 million-plus capital cost for a new prison complex. Imagine what $150 million might do to reduce crime.
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