BRATTLEBORO—In 2014, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark convinced the cash-strapped Vermont Legislature to invest $200,000 in a new, experimental electronic monitoring program.
Now, Clark is ready to make his case that the program should continue. In fact, when the Legislature reconvenes for the 2016 session, Clark intends to argue that the initiative should expand throughout Vermont as a way to cut the state’s prison expenses and alleviate the social costs of incarceration.
In the short time the pilot program has been operating in Windham County, and in spite of a slow start, Clark said he believes expanded electronic monitoring already has repaid the state’s initial investment.
“We’ve learned a lot in the last year,” Clark said. “I think we can make the argument that this is a program that the state can continue to fund and continue to expand.”
Prison overpopulation – and its accompanying financial and social impacts – is a complex, nationwide problem.
While Gov. Peter Shumlin recently lauded a shrinking inmate population, Vermont continues to send inmates out of state due to a lack of prison capacity. And state Attorney General Bill Sorrell last week announced a series of public forums to discuss “whether Vermont should reduce its reliance on incarceration as a response to criminal conduct.”
Clark is no stranger to the corrections reform, having recently proposed a new detention center in Bellows Falls that is aimed in part at reducing recidivism.
Given that it costs nearly $60,000 annually to house a Vermont inmate, and recidivism rates remain high, “we can’t keep doing what we’re doing,” Clark said. “We in law enforcement, if we want to make our communities safer, need to be pushing prison reform.”
One piece of the reform puzzle, Clark said, is better electronic monitoring – the system by which suspects are released from prison and their movements are tracked remotely. Vermont has such a system, but gaps in real-time monitoring have limited its use.
Clark’s decided to launch a pilot program that fixes that problem by featuring 24-hour monitoring of pre-trial suspects via his Newfane-based department’s dispatch center. Enthusiastic state officials gave him $200,000 for a Windham County trial run covering fiscal years 2015 and 2016.
Clark hired a program coordinator, Dawn Hubbard, and the first suspect was accepted in fall 2014. The sheriff acknowledges “a slower start than we wanted” due to a variety of complications.
“There are people who would be eligible, but we can’t find them appropriate housing,” Clark said. “That’s probably been the biggest issue that we’ve had.”
Nevertheless, Clark praised Hubbard’s work and said there have been some creative housing solutions: One suspect stayed at a motel for 60 days in order to have a stable home base for electronic monitoring, he said, while a few others have been hosted by their employers.
Average enrollment in the pilot program has hovered around four suspects, and that’s “about 20 percent of where we want to be,” Clark said. But given the sometimes-lengthy wait for adjudication, even a low number of enrollees can rack up a significant number of days in the program.
Clark says that is what has happened: The initiative thus far, he said, has reduced prison stays by 1,600 days. Using 2014 Vermont Department of Corrections statistics for the cost of housing male and female inmates, the sheriff calculates that the program has saved the state nearly $180,000.
That’s a conservative figure. Clark said he has subtracted the cost of operating the program, including Hubbard’s wages, mileage, and equipment expenses, from the projected savings. And he has not factored in the reduced cost of transport from prison to court and back – no small thing, given that many incarcerated Windham County suspects are driven from Springfield to Brattleboro for court appearances.
Clark also has not yet attempted to quantify other benefits such as allowing suspects who are on electronic monitoring to continue working – and paying taxes – in the community. And there are health-cost benefits, since some of those participating in the program “were able to continue seeing their health providers under their own insurance, versus having the state pay for it,” Clark said.
Additionally, the sheriff is touting the program’s flexibility – it’s been used in cases involving drugs, driving under the influence, and domestic assault, along with other offenses – as well as a low violation rate. “We have had very, very few violations where they left the (permitted) zone,” Clark said.
The state’s initial funding includes money for independent evaluation of the program via the Vermont Crime Research Group under contract with the Joint Fiscal Office.
“They will take a look at cost savings, benefits to the courts, benefits to the state, benefits to the individual, employers ... the idea is to look at what worked, what didn’t work,” Clark said.
Funding for the pilot program runs out at the end of this fiscal year. Clark already has expanded the program into Bennington County, but he’ll be heading to Montpelier in the upcoming legislative session to propose further expansion.
“We will be looking for it to be a budget item, probably through DOC,” Clark said. “There’s a lot of discussion among the legislators and the administration about how to encourage this program and build this program across the state.”
It’s too early to tell what the reception will be for that request, especially given the state’s projected budget shortfall. But Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Washington and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, applauded Clark’s work and said she wants to know whether electronic monitoring can be expanded “to other appropriate populations.”
“The more we can do to keep people in their communities with access to services and employment, there is a greater likelihood of decreased recidivism and increased public safety, and (it) saves money,” Grad said. “This applies to all points where someone intersects with our justice system, from pre-trial to sentencing.”