Bill Sorrell gets religion

There was some welcome news from Vermont’s Eternal General about a month back. Bill Sorrell had begun a series of public hearings on the subject of incarceration — specifically, whether Vermont is putting too many people behind bars. Sorrell and others are gauging public sentiment on the question, and considering whether the Legislature should “adopt a resolution to steer Vermont’s criminal justice system away from incarceration,” according to VTDigger’s account.

Sorrell being Sorrell, he cautioned that nothing much would happen anytime soon.

“It would be like moving a battleship through thousands of individual decisions by prosecutors and judges, and in no small part on the decisions by corrections personnel on when the individual is released,” Sorrell told VTDigger.

Still, if this is how Sorrell plans to spend a chunk of his final year in office, then bully for him. We’ve been imprisoning more and more people for the past three decades, with no appreciable effect on public safety. Our prison population is aging and getting more expensive. It also features an appalling over-representation of Vermont’s teeny-tiny black population.

African-Americans make up just 1 percent of the population of a state that is 95.3 percent white, yet they make up 10.3 percent of Vermont inmates. Put another way, a Vermont inmate is more than 10 times as likely as a resident at large to be African-American.

So if Vermont’s top law enforcement official is on board with reducing incarceration rates, that’s a really great thing. More power to him.

One question, though.

Where the hell was Bill Sorrell all this time?

ICYMI, for the past two decades of our mass incarceration binge, he’s been Vermont’s top law enforcement official. So, welcome to the party, Bill. Sorry it took you so long to get here.

Here are a pair of graphs created by Ben Simpson, a frequent Twitter correspondent (@bensmp), based on data from the state Department of Corrections. First, the incarceration trend over the past 90 years:

Incarceration graph 1

As you can see, we imprisoned relatively few people until the beginning of Reagan’s drug war in the 1980s. Things didn’t get really bad until the mid-90s, when the curve shot upward for a good 15 years or so.

Bill Sorrell became Attorney General in 1997. He’s been in office through the bulk of that unprecedented spike in putting people behind bars.

Here’s the second chart, showing that the incarceration rate has little to do with state population or rates of violent crime.

Incarceration graph 2

As you can see, incarceration per capita hit a historic low point around 1970, increased moderately for two decades, and then shot upward starting around 1990. Meanwhile, violent crime spiked in the late 70s, fell slowly throughout the 80s, and has remained essentially steady since then. In other words, putting more and more people behind bars has had no effect on violent crime.

Again, Bill Sorrell has been Vermont’s top law enforcement official through almost all of this incarceration binge. He doesn’t bear all the responsibility; Legislatures pass sentencing laws, and prosecutors and judges have the final say on individual cases. But Sorrell has been right there in the middle of everything. And he is only now rethinking a fundamental law-enforcement precept in place throughout his tenure?

I welcome his participation, and I hope he can use his bully pulpit to bring some long-absent sanity to our incarceration policies and practices. I just wish he’d experienced his awakening a little sooner. Like, say, before he was a lame duck with virtually no support outside his own inner circle.

Postscript. This may be way too much to ask for, but is it possible that Sorrell will start taking a fresh look at police violence against civilians? Throughout his tenure, he has consistently ruled in favor of police and against citizen complainants. Now that body cameras, patrol car dash-cams, and ubiquitous cell phone videos have shown that police are often guilty of excessive force, could we see another deathbed conversion from Our Eternal General?

Eh, probably not.

1 thought on “Bill Sorrell gets religion

  1. Richard Hiscock

    You may have seen this already – if so sorry for the trouble. What’s Going On in Our Prisons? Michele Deitch and Michael B. Mushlin January 4, 2016 / Michele Deitch is a senior lecturer in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and in the law school at the University of Texas, Austin. Michael B. Mushlin is a professor at Pace Law School. They are the co-chairs of the A.B.A.’s Subcommittee on Independent Correctional Oversight Leonard Strickland’s barbaric and unnecessary death at the hands of prison guards at the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York highlights the need for independent oversight of the state’s prisons. His beating in 2010, the details of which have only recently come to light, is the latest in a long list of instances of brutality toward inmates in New York’s prison system. The state’s inhumane practices involving solitary confinement have also generated outrage. Thousands of prisoners have been held in extreme isolation, in some cases for years, and often for minor rule violations, at great cost to their mental health and potential for rehabilitation. A settlement announced last month of a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union will reduce both the number of inmates held in isolation and the maximum stay, and will abolish some of the harshest conditions. While this is a welcome move, it provides for only two years of monitoring once it has been implemented and does not address the many issues that affect inmate health and safety for the overwhelming number not in solitary confinement. This is why additional governmental oversight is urgently needed to truly change the culture of a system that holds 53,000 inmates across 54 prisons. What goes on inside these prisons is largely hidden from view, and there is little accountability for wrongdoing. The New York State Commission of Correction has longstanding authority to regulate and visit prisons. The state comptroller pointed out in a 2006 audit that the commission had essentially defaulted on that responsibility. Nine years later, little has changed. The commission investigates some inmate deaths, but it cannot be fairly described as a monitoring body. The result is that New York’s prison system operates almost entirely below the radar. This invisibility should end by setting up a system of effective independent governmental oversight to ensure the health and safety of prisoners. If harm is to be prevented in these dark places, we must know what is happening inside. Nationally, the situation is not better. For example, abuse of prison inmates appears to be endemic in Florida, prison rape is widespread across the country, and the hanging death in a Texas jail cell of Sandra Bland, who was arrested after a routine traffic stop, highlighted the national problem of suicide in custody. (Her family has disputed the finding by authorities that she killed herself.) While we are witnessing a movement for increased police accountability, the need for transparency and accountability is even more urgent in the nation’s jails and prisons, given their closed environments and lack of cellphones and body cameras to capture abusive encounters. These institutions primarily confine the most powerless and vulnerable, including poor people who are disproportionally African-American and Latino, as well as people with mental illness. The New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Correction recently held a hearing about the need for such oversight. We were among the experts invited to testify about what an effective system of oversight might look like. The American Bar Association has provided clear guidance on this issue, which we helped to develop. It calls for every state to create an independent government monitoring body for its prisons and jails that reports to the public about conditions in those facilities. The State Legislature should follow the A.B.A.’s guidance and establish a monitoring body with unfettered access to prison facilities, staff, inmates and records in announced or unannounced visits. The monitor should be empowered to examine and report on all aspects of a facility’s operations that affect inmates, including, for example: medical and mental health care; use of force; inmate violence; conditions of confinement; staffing practices; inmate discipline and use of solitary confinement; substance abuse treatment; educational and rehabilitative programming; and re-entry planning. There also should be an independent investigatory body that reviews complaints and allegations of wrongdoing, including inmate grievances, abuse claims, denial of access to health care and inmate deaths. At the same time, the prison system should enhance its own internal accountability measures, such as its decision to electronically log complaints to monitor accusations of staff misconduct. But in light of recent events, the public is unlikely to be satisfied with a prison agency’s pronouncements that everything is fine or trust the vindications of staff members accused of abusive behavior. Only independent monitoring and investigations can provide that level of public accountability. The costs of this oversight would pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars paid out in lawsuits stemming from unconstitutional practices and the untold costs associated with ineffective programs and unnecessary use of solitary confinement. Designed correctly, an oversight body can provide an early warning system about patterns of complaints against certain prison employees, assess the appropriateness of discipline meted out to staff members, address concerns about inadequate health care or protocols for dealing with mentally ill inmates, highlight programs that are ineffective, point to areas for improved staff training, and identify policies that need to be adjusted. A monitor could also identify practices worth replicating at other prisons. The awareness by prison staff that a monitor could show up at any time would check employee misbehavior. The culture of a prison changes when outsiders shine a light on its operations and conditions. External oversight will likely result in safer prisons for inmates and employees alike, more effective rehabilitation programs, a healthier prison culture that supports positive outcomes and taxpayer savings from fewer lawsuits and lessened recidivism. Without independent oversight, we will not have a prison system worthy of our values. If further tragedies are to be avoided, the New York Legislature and its counterparts around the nation must provide for comprehensive and meaningful oversight of all correctional facilities.


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