Category Archives: justice and corrections

Housing the Homeless as Economic Development Strategy

We could view homelessness as a moral failure… or a failure of capitalism… or a failure of individuals to live productive lives… or a problem in need of resources we can’t afford to commit…

Or… just spitballin’ here… a waste of potential and precious human capital.

For this discussion, we’re leaving out the moral and ethical dimensions of the issue. We’re not declaring an obligation to protect our most vulnerable. We’re putting on our green eyeshades and considering homelessness from a purely bottom-line point of view.

To hear the Scott administration tell it, extending the emergency motel voucher program is kind of like taking a pile of money and setting it on fire. It produces a bit of transient warmth, but it’s otherwise a waste of resources. Legislative Democrats and even some housing advocates often fall for this: They tacitly accept the premise instead of making the economic case for (a) giving everyone a roof to sleep under in the short term and (b) ending homelessness in the longer term.

When you look at it that way, you find that we can’t afford not to end homelessness. There is abundant evidence that addressing homelessness is an economic winner — not just in the long term, but almost immediately. So let’s stop talking about whether we can afford $72 million for another year of motel vouchers or $31 million for a stripped-down version of the program or a few hundred million to provide enough housing for all. Instead, let’s talk about the economic positives of a humane policy choice.

(I don’t pretend that any of this is my idea, but it ought to be more of a factor in our policy debates.)

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Hang On, Female Inmates, We’ll Get You a New Prison In Maybe Less Than a Decade

This charming space, with its comfy chairs and natural lighting and complete absence of books, is either a prospective rendering of Vermont State University’s new “library” or a possible concept for a new women’s prison in Vermont.

Spoiler alert: it’s the latter. On Thursday morning, the House Corrections & Institutions Committee took the next small step toward building a new facility to replace the inadequate and unsanitary mess that is the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, a.k.a. Vermont’s women’s prison.

I say “small step” because, as the hearing revealed, it’s going to take — maybe — five to eight years to complete the process of designing, siting, and building a new facility. Or possibly longer. There could be roadblocks, and everything is dependent on a solid funding commitment. I’m sure the inmates can be patient about this.

The hearing centered on a presentation by HOK, an architectural firm that’s best known for building sports stadiums but has also designed more than $4 billion in what it euphemistically calls “justice facilities.” HOK’s Justice Division, so they say, “focuses on designs for human rights and a more just world as a whole.” By building prisons. (It received $1.5 million from the state for doing the research that led to Thursday’s presentation, which can be downloaded from the committee’s website.)

In the first phase of its study, commissioned in 2020, HOK unreservedly recommended closure of CRCF and replacement with a new facility. The state is committed to do so, but that’s about as far as it’s gotten. Veteran C&I Chair Alice Emmons said this year’s work will focus on finding a location for the new facility. “You don’t do nothin’ without land,” she said. The 2024 session will focus on moving from the concept-idea stage toward an architectural design. After that comes project bidding and selection, construction, and making the transition from CRCF to the new place.

There was no attempt to determine how large the new facility should be, but there was plenty of discussion on the subject that broke down into two camps: We’ve got to build it as big as it might possibly need to be, or we can take a less maximalist approach because we’ll continue on the path of justice reform because incarcerating large numbers of people is fundamentally inhumane and counterproductive.

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

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I Don’t Know What This Is, But It’s Not “Fantastic”

The political leaders of St. Albans have reacted enthusiastically to a report from the city police department indicating that there were 15 internal investigations of SAPD staff in the year 2022.

That’s 15 investigations in a department with 18 staffers. You do the math.

I have a hard time being “impressed” by that (Alderperson Marie Bessette), or viewing it as “fantastic” (a member of the city’s Police Advisory Board). They are taking the report as a sign the department is unafraid to ride herd on itself. Sure, but I think it’s more like getting a fence around a toxic waste pit and starting the cleanup. I mean, if the SAPD is averaging almost one internal investigation a year per employee (which they did in the previous two years as well), there’s clearly a lot of work left to do.

VTDigger has a lengthy piece giving as much detail on the investigations as the city will release, which isn’t much. It’s still worth reading.

This is one more sign of a big problem with oversight of city and town police agencies. Civic leaders and top cops are often in codependent relationships (See also: Weinberger, Miro). I think it’s safe to say the police chief is the most influential figure in a city or town government. Not necessarily the most powerful, but the most influential. You see it in town after town: Even when a police chief or department alienates the public and stains the community’s reputation, civilian leaders are eager to close ranks with them.

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Our Best and Our Brightest

One of our precious Boys in Blue, a Vermont State Trooper, is responsible for the above mess. Allegedly responsible.

This is a screenshot from a rousing game of Mad Verse City that involved several troopers. (Allegedly.) MVC is a cheap-looking online game that tests your rap skills. And I think it’s safe to say that not only did the participants freely engage in racist, ableist and misogynistic language, they’re monumentally shitty rappers to boot. (The black band obscures a variant of the N-word, which you can guess from context.)

Another (alleged) blue-shirted rapper closed his rhyme with “If being racist is right, then I’ll never be wrong.” A third used the word “retarded” in a rap that included his (alleged) real name.

Pack of geniuses we’ve got here.

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Our Sheriffs Continue to Cover Themselves in Glory, Or Something

Our county sheriffs are engaged in a Sideshow Bob rake routine, and the timing couldn’t be worse. The Legislature is considering a package of reforms to the system, including an end to profiteering off contract work and tightening up the standards for unprofessional conduct.

And the sheriffs seem bent on ensuring the reforms become law.

We’d previously seen numerous disgraceful aspects of the sheriffin’ trade. Now, just in time for committee hearings on the reform bill, we’ve got a fresh crop including more badness from former Orange County sheriff Bill Bohnyak, a retiring sheriff tossing bags of loot around the office, and the questionable finances of a newly-elected sheriff who won office despite facing an assault charge.

Real bunch of prize specimens we’ve got here.

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Now That’s What I Call a Perfectly-Timed Scoop

Every reporter loves to get a scoop — a story with some impact that you’ve got all to yourself. It’s a badge of honor, to be sure. But more often than not, it doesn’t make much of a difference.

The latest comes from Seven Days‘ Courtney Lamdin, who hit the sweet spot by uncovering a lucrative side hustle negotiated by the Burlington Police Officers Association. It made a deal with a luxury condo development to provide security with off-duty city cops.

Her story may affect the outcome of the hottest issue on the Burlington ballot: A proposed police oversight board that would exclude members of the force from serving. That idea has prompted opposition from Mayor Miro Weinberger and Interim-For-Life Police Chief Jon Murad, among others.

Well, Lamdin’s article makes me think there’s a real need for police oversight, and it would be best done without any officers on the board.

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Phil Scott’s Charmless Offensive

Since the beginning of his fourth term, Gov. Phil Scott has been busily drawing lines in the sand and daring the Legislature to cross them. It’s a strategy that seems to borrow much more from his years at Thunder Road than from his allegedly collaborative approach to governing.

But he’s not stopping with public defiance of the Democratic majority. He’s also putting out a series of aggressive policy stances that threaten to further inflame relations with majority Democrats. First there was the proposal to shift state retirees’ health insurance from Medicare to Medicare Advantage, the Potemkin Village of senior coverage. That proposal was cheekily unveiled during campaign season, when you might think he’d at least pretend to be friendly to the state employees’ union. Second, his proposal to spend $900,000 to study an issue that’s already being studied by the state’s Climate Council.

And third, the Department of Public Safety’s transparently political plan to publish a politically motivated (and dismally stupid) crime “heat map” that won’t help the public understand crime trends but will give the administration another cudgel for its attacks on criminal justice reform.

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“Culture Change” at DOC is a Moral Imperative

More evidence that the long-awaited “culture change” at the Vermont Department of Corrections is still purely conceptual: A new study shows that the Southern State Correctional Facility at Springfield is a hellhole for inmates and staff alike.

It’s bad. Really, really bad. It’s not only an administrative and regulatory failure, it’s a moral failure. It reflects badly on anyone who’s had anything to do with our prison system in recent times: DOC officials, successive governors, union leadership, and the legislators with oversight responsibility. Anyone else? The Judiciary? Prosecutors?

Abigail Crocker, co-founder of the Justice Research Initiative, found many of the study’s results “alarming.” I think that’s an understatement.

One of those findings: 37% of the prison population, and 30% of prison staff, have had suicidal ideations.

So. In a place that’s supposed to be preparing inmates for productive re-entry into society, more than one-third of them are in despair or painfully close to it.

Well, you might say, of course people serving hard time might feel bad. But then you have to explain that 30% figure among staff, which indicates that the prison is just about as horrible for the workers as for the inmates.

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In Honor of the Restoration of Power, It’s the Return of Lightning Round!

It’s been a long, strange week chez VPO. Along with many other Vermonters, our power went out on the morning of Friday the 23rd. Unlike most other Vermonters, we didn’t get our power back until the evening of the 28th. (Our neighborhood suffered the downing of multiple power poles and the damaging of its substation.) Most low-key Christmas ever.

So that’s why no blogging in a week. In the meantime, things kept happening (on a reduced-quantity holiday schedule), so here I am to proclaim the return of POWERRR and to catch up on stuff I might have missed. Today’s bits include a surge in criminality that can’t possibly be the Progressives’ fault, a minimal sentence for a “savage beating,” how the F-35s put Burlington in Putin’s crosshairs, and a country-rock revenge fantasy from a very unsuccessful House candidate. En avant, mes amis!

Rutland Crime Wave Fails the Preferred Narrative. On December 27, VTDigger reported on Rutland’s dramatic rise in property crimes. Thefts from cars up 400% from the previous five-year average, and a more than threefold increase in stolen cars, thefts from buildings, and retail theft.

I don’t know how they’re going to pin this on Radical Socialist Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah Fair George or “defunding the police,” but I’m sure they’re looking for a way. After all, Rutland doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a crime-friendly center of rabid progressivism, and yet here they are suffering a crime wave. Some are blaming restrictions on bail, but the obvious cause is substance use. According to the Rutland PD, 75% of suspects in retail theft are known narcotic users, as are 64% of auto theft suspects and 100% of robbery suspects.

Yeah, I think we’ve pinned down the problem there. Opioid deaths continue to set new records. Opioid-related crime appears to be fueling any increase in lawlessness. Can we stop nattering about progressive criminal justice reform and address the real problems?

No, I guess that’s no fun, is it.

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So Hey, Department of Corrections, How Goes the “Culture Change”?

You know it’s serious when a report from State Auditor Doug Hoffer (a) gets a lot of media attention and (b) prompts a chastened response from state officialdom.

That’s just what happened Monday with the release of Hoffer’s performance audit of the Department of Corrections’ prisoner grievance process. A process that was so lacking that Hoffer couldn’t even conduct a full audit because of poor recordkeeping. A process so lacking that to even call it a “process” is an indignity against the English language.

And no, I’m not exaggerating. Hoffer found that DOC records do not “have reliable, basic information to determine the number, type, status or outcome of prisoner grievances.”

Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

But wait, there’s more! Inaccurate data, missing records, no submission or response dates, inadequate training for staffers who use the system, and no DOC administrator specifically tasked with managing the grievance process.

It’s a great system if your goal is to avoid accountability.

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