As in most states, the prison population in Vermont skyrocketed in recent decades.
Between 1980 and 2009, the number of people incarcerated in Vermont’s unified corrections system rose by 363 percent, reaching a peak of 2,220 people. Aware of the need to reverse course, lawmakers took part in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, passing legislation in 2008 that contributed to a significant decline in the incarcerated population. Still, 1,708 people were incarcerated under the Vermont Department of Corrections’ (DOC) jurisdiction as of June 2019 — still double the number of Vermonters incarcerated just 30 years ago.
The criminal legal system in Vermont is home to some of the highest racial disparities in the country. Although Black people made up just 1 percent of the state’s adult population in 2017, they accounted for 8 percent of admissions to correctional facilities that year. These disparities can be found throughout the criminal legal system. For example, one study found that Black and Latinx drivers in Vermont were two and a half to four times more likely to have their vehicles searched by law enforcement than white drivers.
There are many drivers of incarceration in Vermont, but admissions to correctional facilities for violations of probation, parole, and furlough are a key contributor. In 2017, an estimated two out of every three admissions fell into this category. Once incarcerated, many people in DOC custody — more than half — serve longer than their minimum sentence length. This can be attributed in part to excessive restrictions on re-entry, as well as the state’s punitive sentencing laws, including the fact that Vermont has the lowest felony threshold for theft of any state in New England.
Further, a lack of publicly available data throughout the state’s criminal legal system poses significant challenges for addressing disparities and advancing the reforms presented in this report.
Vermont lawmakers reiterated their commitment to criminal justice reform in the state budget for fiscal year 2020, illustrating their dedication to reducing the state’s reliance on incarceration. Vermont can continue to dramatically reduce its incarcerated population by implementing just a few sensible reforms, including:
These are just a few of the examples of potential reforms found in this report. For more information, along with a detailed breakdown of Vermont’s incarcerated population, click here.
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