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Investments reflect our values

We are working on the next wave of criminal justice and corrections reforms

State Rep. Sara Coffey serves the Windham-1 District (Guilford and Vernon) and urges her constituents to “stay in touch with any questions or your priorities for 2020.” The first-term lawmaker, a Democrat, writes: “It’s an honor to be part of the Windham County delegation and to serve, working together we accomplished so much this session for Vermonters.” To read her full end-of-session report and for contact information, visit saracoffeyvt.com.

Guilford

Over the last 19 weeks, I have been immersed in parliamentary procedure, debate, and deliberation. Together, we passed legislation and a $6.1 billion budget that prioritized strengthening our economy; addressing climate change, clean water, child-care assistance, housing, and fair and impartial policing; and preserving reproductive rights. We accomplished this without raising new taxes on Vermonters.

So often we hear about the issues debated on the floor of the Statehouse, but much of our work in the Legislature happens in the committee room.

I serve on the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, where we focus on the capital bill and corrections policy. I believe that both budgets and prisons are reflections of our priorities and values, so I have thoroughly enjoyed the work on this committee: making fiscal and policy decisions to help build stronger and healthier communities.

This year we were working with a reduced capital budget of $123 million to support an increased demand for projects throughout the state. We prioritized education with increased support to our state colleges.

We provided another year of E-911 compliance and safety grants for our schools; public safety, with $5.4 million to replace the Williston barracks field station; human services, with $4.5 million to replace the Middlesex therapeutic residential facility; clean water, with $26 million to fund equipment for improving water quality on farms; loans for construction of municipal storm water, waste water, and land-conservation and water-quality projects to protect our waterways and watersheds; $3.6 million in ongoing investments in affordable housing; $3.2 million in community building grants to support agricultural fair projects, cultural facilities, libraries, recreational facilities, and historic preservation; and funding to maintain Vermont’s state buildings, historic sites, parks, and forests.

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Our committee spent the second half of the session focusing on the various aspects of Vermont’s Department of Corrections. In Vermont, unlike other states, the DOC is under the Agency of Human Services rather than the Department of Public Safety. This is a good thing, because it puts the humanity at the center, enabling better integration of social and health services that are often needed for those incarcerated and their families.

Vermont has been a leader in criminal justice reform. And, despite an opioid epidemic that is raging throughout many of our communities, our state’s crime and incarceration rates have decreased.

Back in 2007, Vermont had the second highest rate of increase in corrections population in the country. At that time, 750 Vermonters were in out-of-state correctional facilities, and our prison population was projected to increase from 2,200 to 2,700 by 2018.

Today, approximately 1,800 Vermonters are incarcerated or detained, including 240 who are in out-of-state facilities.

This decrease is the result of a series of initiatives accomplished through the Justice Reinvestment Act back in 2007 and 2008. This legislation included the creation of community justice centers that use community-based restorative practices to divert people from prison and provide supports to enable people to successfully leave prison; an increase in the use of diversion and transitional housing; and an increased access to behavioral health treatment.

* * *

Yet in spite of the innovations over the last decade, a lot of work remains to be done.

We are seeing an increase in the number of women who are incarcerated and people entering corrections with opioid-use disorder. Our aging facilities were not designed to deliver the current offering of programs.

And, as most people in prison today will return to their communities, we need to ensure they have the rehabilitative care, training and resources to be successful in their re-entry.

This session, so we can make further reforms, our committee took the first steps to re-engage with the Council of State Governments for “Justice Reinvestment II” to do a deep dive to assess our overall criminal justice system, our population trends, and program needs.

With research and the right-sizing of the prison population, we can improve our system and design modern, trauma-informed correctional facilities that better meet the needs of those incarcerated, improve conditions for our state workers, reduce recidivism, save taxpayers’ dollars, and keep our communities safe.

I am excited to work on this next wave of criminal justice and corrections reforms.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #513 (Wednesday, June 5, 2019). This story appeared on page E1.

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