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The Commons
Voices / Letters from readers

Criminal justice policy should balance the interests of the whole community

Originally published in The Commons issue #348 (Wednesday, March 16, 2016).



RE: “Next governor should focus on economic justice” [Viewpoint, Mar. 2]:

I read with interest Peter Galbraith’s Viewpoint advising the next governor on steps to increase economic justice in Vermont. I was disappointed that he did not mention one more factor that should be considered: that of criminal-justice reform.

It’s true that Vermont doesn’t incarcerate as many people as other U.S. states — say, Louisiana, Mississippi, or Oklahoma — but our incarceration rate, per capita, surpasses those of Colombia, Singapore, and United Arab Emirates, to name a few (source: prisonpolicy.org/global).

But what does this have to do with economic justice?

Every day a person spends in prison is a day that this person costs taxpayers money. Every day, this person is not earning money, paying income tax, supporting a family.

If we consider that the majority of people in prison are poor people, it would seem that prison time exacerbates the situation that we want to change. And usually, upon release from prison, people find themselves in a position where they are denied access to jobs and housing.

In the meantime, studies have shown that long prison sentences do not result in less crime. On the contrary, prison is in effect “crime school.” People in prison learn that they are different from the rest of us — “criminals” — and they reinforce in one another the very behaviors we want to “correct.” And yet, our legislature continues to increase sentencing and to pronounce more behaviors to be crimes.

I am not suggesting that there shouldn’t be consequences for breaking laws. But the consequences should be applied with consideration not just of the victim but of the offender, the community, and the family — the other, invisible victims.

Is it not better to send a person whose offense is related to addiction into a rehabilitative program and give that person support in getting their life in order?

Is it not better to give a mentally ill person treatment rather than placement in a setting — prison — that will be counterproductive to success in life?

Doesn’t it make sense to send older, ill, low-risk inmates home rather than having the state take on the increased burden of caring for them?

In this legislative session, two bills have been presented to address these issues.

S.207, also introduced as H.623, addresses the release of older, low-risk inmates: “If the risk is low, let them go.” This particular initiative has the support of the ACLU. (Google “ACLU” with “Mass Incarceration of the Elderly.”)

S.206, also introduced as H.617, would end the practice of sending people back to prison for missing an appointment or staying out past a curfew — i.e. a “technical violation.” Reintegration furlough (Vermont’s early-release program) is meant to encourage “pro-social” living, but how many of us could succeed, let alone thrive, with the kind of supervision that punishes small missteps rather than rewarding what we do well?

The Vermont Department of Corrections’ budget is huge, but these costs don’t include the costs to families and our communities.

Roughly 1,700 Vermonters are currently incarcerated. That means roughly 1,700 families, including 6,000 children, have the emotional, social, and financial strains of having an incarcerated family member — and that’s on any given day. The total number of people affected is far greater.

Vermont can lead the way to a more sane and effective criminal justice system, and in the process ease the financial burden on families, communities, and the state budget. What are we waiting for?

Meg McCarthy


Marlboro

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