Let Us Now Praise Doomed Policy Proposals

The fine folks at the Vermont ACLU got together Tuesday to unveil a plan that would cut the state’s inmate population by hundreds — which would, among other things, allow Vermont to bring its out-of-state inmates back home. (It’d also save money in a bloated corrections budget.)

Great idea. And in the words of Rice University Prof. Quincy Maddox, “Ain’t nothin’ gon’ happen.”

Seriously, I have to admire the dedication of these public interest advocates who do all kinds of research and put together plausible policy proposals in professional-quality brochures and pdfs that you just know are destined to get the bone-saw treatment in the legislative abbatoir. (Not on the official public tour.)

The plan calls for an end to cash bail (at any moment, hundreds of Vermonters are behind bars for failure to post bail), expanding alternatives to incarceration, better treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders, sentencing and prosecutorial reform, decriminalization of certain offenses including sex work, and better options for released inmates.

For years now, our political leaders have paid lip service to the notion of bringing all our inmates back home. But even as we’ve seen scandals and problems and questionable policies at out-of-state prisons, our leaders have failed to follow through.

This time, as usual, there’s plenty of lip service to be had.

The chairs of the judiciary committees, Sen. Dick Sears and Rep. Maxine Grad, each told VTDigger that they’re “open to considering” the ACLU’s recommendations. Which is usually Chairspeak for “Eh, maybe we’ll hold a hearing.”

Gov. Phil Scott has indicated his openness-to-considering measures to end out-of-state incarceration… but he has also spent the last couple of years promoting a plan to build a massive new prison “campus” that would solve the problem by increasing capacity rather than reducing the inmate population. So it doesn’t sound like his first priority is any kind of justice reform.

My fearless prediction: The ACLU plan, or parts thereof, will get some consideration in committee. But little or none of it will advance in the legislature. Not in an election year with a lot of politically advantageous items already on the agenda. You know, the stuff they couldn’t get done last year: Minimum wage, paid family leave, cannabis. Probably some kind of climate action, if only out of sheer embarrassment. No, I think the best we can hope for on inmate reduction is, hahahaha, a study committee.

Even if the legislature defies my cynicism and actually passes something significant, I Hereby Predict that the governor will find some reason, however tangential, for a veto.

But by all means, Dear Leaders, please prove me wrong. The ACLU plan is a good one — not only in terms of ending the stain of sending inmates to questionable facilities hundreds of miles away, but also in terms of a better justice system with a better chance of rehabilitating offenders. Which is what they’re supposed to mean when they call it “Corrections,” isn’t it?

One more note: The ACLU said that its efforts were hamstrung by a lack of public disclosure by state officials who allegedly work for us, the taxpayers. From its report: “The information in this report is limited by the fact that the Vermont Department of Corrections publishes little publicly available data and was not responsive to researchers’ requests for key metrics included across Blueprint for Smart Justice reports — including data that was generally available in other states.”

Great. Once again, Vermont fails the transparency test.

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