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:
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.
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.