Pubdate: Mon, 24 Dec 2007
Source: Day, The (New London,CT)
Copyright: 2007 The Day Publishing Co.
Author: Wilson Ring, Associated Press Writer
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


Montpelier, Vt. -- For almost two decades, the Vermont Corrections
Department has grappled with ever larger numbers of inmates being sent
their way.

New prisons have been built, cutting-edge social programs designed to
keep people from needing prison have been implemented and inmates have
been sent to other states for long-term, less expensive housing.

Yet, despite occasional pauses in the rate of growth, the number of
people in state custody has continued to grow. In an era of fiscal
prudence, the Legislature has regularly funded double-digit increases
to keep pace.

Now, lawmakers are saying enough and trying to put the brakes on the
growth in both the budget and the inmate population.

They're talking about realigning prisons, looking for efficiencies,
finding ways to better monitor some inmates outside of jail and
offering improved treatment for drug and alcohol offenders.

"Any change we make is going to draw some criticism, but, again, if
you don't change it, it's not going to stay the same, it'll just
continue to get worse," said state Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington,
the chairman of the legislature's Corrections Oversight Committee.

It's an issue being confronted by states across the

"Nationally we've seen state spending on corrections go from $9
billion in the mid '80s to well over $40 billion in 2005," said
Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Government's
Justice Center, a New York-based nonpartisan group that works with
state governments. "At the same time, we've seen no improvements of
recidivism rates."

More recently, state lawmakers across the country have begun to work
together to save money with a variety of innovative programs to keep
people out of prison.

"How can we be smarter about supervising the people in the community,
how can we make sure they're connected to the treatment and job
training that will have an impact on public safety?" Thompson said.

One of the success stories pointed to by the Council on State
Government is Kansas.

A few years ago, the state was facing huge increases in the needs for
prison beds and exploding budgets. The trend was driven by parole and
probation violators being sent back to prison.

Now, the Kansas Department of Corrections is working more closely with
inmates in prison and on the streets. The state is working to address
underlying social issues by redeveloping housing and improving
employment prospects in communities that send a lot of people to prison.

"For years and years and years, corrections agencies around the
country, including Kansas, have drilled into our staffs' heads that
everybody's responsible for security, not just those who wear
uniforms," said Kansas Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz.

"What we started doing about five years ago, is you have a
responsibility for security, but everybody also has a responsibility
for seeing that offenders are successful upon their release."

The numbers are bearing out the success of the efforts in

Since the program began, there are a number of indicators that show
the programs are working, including a 41 percent drop in the number of
new convictions committed by offenders on parole, Werholtz said.

"I think that is the single most significant statistic that we can
come up with to demonstrate that not only does this save resources, I
think we've got some pretty solid evidence that we're making Kansas
safer," he said.

Vermont is facing a similar challenge.

Over the last 20 years, Vermont's crime rate has stayed the same, but
its prison population has almost tripled. Between 2000 and 2007, the
budget for the Vermont Corrections Department grew 74 percent.

Last spring, the Legislature ordered the Corrections Department to
pare $4 million from the rate of growth. Earlier this month, the
Corrections Department issued a report with a variety of suggestions
about how to do that.

The report made clear why Vermont's prison population has been growing
so fast: Tougher sentences for a variety of offenses, especially
driving under the influence of alcohol, sex crimes and domestic abuse.

Since the increase in prison population began, the state has opened
new prisons in Newport and Springfield and added a work camp in St.
Johnsbury. The state also contracts for about 500 beds at for-profit,
out-of-state prisons.

Sears said there was little chance the Legislature would back off the
tougher sentences. He also said there was no possibility the state
would embark on another prison building binge.

Sears said the focus would be on finding other solutions for the
nonviolent offenders currently behind bars, many of whom were
convicted of nonviolent drug and property crimes.

The Corrections report said about 500 of the state's 2,100 or so
inmates were moderate risk, nonviolent offenders.

"They may be real pains in the neck and they may be committing serious
crimes, but it seems to me that there are alternatives that could be
developed for that group of individuals," said Sears. "It doesn't mean
that group shouldn't be held accountable. It's just there should be
alternatives available for them."

The Corrections Department report has a section entitled, "What
works." It lays out a series of programs that have been shown to
reduce the need for prison beds by keeping people out of prison. It
includes drug treatment programs, drug courts, treatment for violence
and sex offenders and workplace training.

Vermont already has some of those programs. Whether they will be
expanded -- and any other possibilities -- will be discussed by the
Legislature and Corrections officials next year.

"You have to have the governor, the judiciary, and the legislature all
agreeing, whether you're Republican or Democrat or Progressive, that
we've got a significant problem regarding the prison population that
needs to be dealt with," Sears said.

"The impetus for change, I think, is here now. I'm not sure it'll be
here a year from now."
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