(Host) Officials in several Vermont towns have taken the state to task over the number former prison inmates living in their communities.
In the second of a two-part report, VPR’s John Dillon reports that legislative budget writers are having a hard time keeping up with escalating prison costs. There’s concern the state may not be able to operate the newest prison in Springfield.
(Dillon) While town officials call for more prison construction, a special legislative oversight committee is trying to decide if the state will even have enough money to open the state’s newest prison.
The corrections budget numbers are staggering. In 1978, the Department of Corrections spent $7.5 million. Now the Department’s budget is $75 million. The number of people in state custody has also gone up, from 400 people 25 years ago, to about 1,800 today.
Yet in recent years, the crime rate has leveled off and even declined for some offenses. But because of tougher sentences for drunk driving and other crimes, the state’s prisons are constantly overcrowded.
Susan Bartlett is a Democratic senator from Lamoille County and chairwoman of the Appropriations panel. She says the Legislature created the oversight committee to examine corrections policy.
(Bartlett) “We understand that we can’t build facilities fast enough to keep up with demand that we are creating and the number of people we’re locking up. It just truly is a bottomless pit that’s sucking up all the money that we have.”
(Dillon) To deal with the overcrowded jails, the state now sends several hundred inmates to prisons in Virginia. A new 350-bed prison in Springfield will be finished next summer. But it will cost Vermont about $9,000 more per inmate to keep those prisoners here.
Bennington Senator Dick Sears says he wonders if the state can afford to open Springfield, given the problems with the state budget.
(Sears) “That’s something I started talking about in the Appropriations Committee earlier on this year. When you look at the costs is in Virginia compared to what the cost is dollar-wise, I think it’s an issue that we have to confront.”
(Dillon) The state will spend three to four million dollars just in staff salaries to run the Springfield prison. Yet the budget for the Corrections Department continues to climb faster than the growth in state revenues.
Corrections officials told the committee that they know the budget is not sustainable. Deputy Commissioner Don Hartman says the Department is stuck reacting to events.
(Hartman) “Because we have not controlled our own fate as a state, we’re being driven by the law of randomness and this is why we really welcome this committee. We don’t drive the system in corrections, we are reactive in nature. We don’t have anyone born in a correctional facility. They often don’t die in a correctional facility. We have a very short time in that person’s life to effect change, but it also costs an enormous amount of money. The question has to be how can we do it better.”
(Dillon) At its first meeting earlier this month, the panel seemed overwhelmed by the task of reform. Members asked the Department for hard evidence that programs had worked to lower the recidivism rate – the number of inmates who return to jail. The committee learned the number of people serving shorter sentences in on rise, which puts a strain on the system. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Westman asked whether there’s a better way to handle the huge growth in people serving short sentences for drunk driving:
(Westman) “The largest increase in corrections is people with multiple DWI and younger Vermonters, particularly young males in the their late teens and early 20s. We’ve moved into that area. Should we serve those people in the same way we’re serving them now?”
(Dillon) The panel will look at cutting costs by reducing the number of short-term sentences and detainees. The committee plans to meet again in October and to have a report finished by December.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.
Part One of this report, Town officials criticize Dept. of Corrections policies is available online.