Can Vermont afford the cost of being ‘tough on crime?’

More than 2,000 Vermonters currently live behind bars, but Vermont's prison system has room for only about 1,600 of them.

That means the Department of Corrections must ship some 480 Vermont inmates to out-of-state prisons.

Since 2010, about 100 of those inmates have been housed at the Franklin County Jail and House of Corrections, a medium-security jail in nearby Greenfield, Mass.

Most of the inmates in Greenfield, according to Vermont Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito, are either nonviolent offenders serving short sentences, pre-trial detainees, or those waiting to get into substance-abuse treatment programs.

According to Pallito, it costs the state about $52 a day to house a prisoner in Greenfield, or nearly three times less than it would cost to house that same prisoner in a Vermont facility. The Corrections Department estimated that this policy would save more than $357,000 annually.

Greenfield was also seen as a cheaper option than housing Vermont prisoners in privately run, for-profit prisons in Kentucky and Arizona, where many Vermonters are serving their sentences.

But the Vermont prisoners were unhappy about the conditions in Greenfield.

While Vermont's prisons have outdoor recreation facilities, Greenfield does not.

While Vermont's prisons allow for open family visitation for low-risk inmates, in Greenfield, visits take place behind a pane of thick glass.

Inmates in Greenfield also complained about expensive phone calls and limited access to their legal papers.

The unhappiness boiled over into rage and, on July 7, 2011, Vermont prisoners rioted and caused more than $250,000 of damage to the Greenfield jail. No inmates or guards were injured, but 12 Vermont inmates faced felony charges from the riot.

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According to Seven Days, the fallout from the riot, and the prisoners' complaints that precipitated it, resulted in the Corrections Department's decision not to renew its contract with the Greenfield jail.

As Gordon Bock, a prisoner advocate who served on the now-defunct Vermont's Corrections Citizens' Advisory Group, which consisted of volunteers who advise the department on policy issues, wrote last year on VTDigger.org, the Greenfield riot “serves to remind us that saving money on the state's prison budget is crucial, especially in a tight economy, but a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach can instill needless anger, tension, and resentment in the person who is incarcerated.”

Bock wrote that it is false economy to house Vermont prisoners in a settling that's far more restrictive than what they would get in a Vermont prison, especially when the bulk of these prisoners will be returning home bearing a grudge over the treatment they received.

According to Seven Days, Vermont has a contract with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) - the biggest for-profit prison corporation in the United States - that requires the state to house at least 400 of its inmates at CCA's Lee Adjustment Center in Beattysville, Ky.

Is this a good use of state resources?

The path that leads to crime is a complex one. There are no easy answers or bromides, and reasonable people can disagree about good public policy on such issues as the criminalization of marijuana, which has clogged our judicial system and contributed to the rolls of nonviolent offenders behind bars.

The per-inmate cost for housing a prisoner in a Vermont facility averages about $47,000 a year. Put another way, that amount would pay for four years of in-state tuition at the University of Vermont.

The state needs a multi-pronged approach to reduce its prison population and rely less on stopgaps like sending its prisoners to private prisons far from Vermont's borders.

However high the cost, such measures represent a real, long-term economy, both on the state government balance sheet and - more importantly - in the value of Vermonters' lives not squandered behind bars.

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