Legislators try to curb Corrections Department spending

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(Host) A legislative committee recommends that lawmakers cut costs in the Corrections Department by limiting the probation period for some offenders. The committee made its recommendation as lawmakers confront a Corrections budget that has almost doubled in five years.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Vermont’s crime rate has actually decreased in recent years. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at the Corrections Department budget. The number of people in the corrections system – and the cost of keeping them there – has increased dramatically.

Representative Frank Mazur is a South Burlington Republican who chairs a special Corrections Oversight Committee. He told fellow lawmakers that the budget now reflects the cost of tougher sentences for drunk driving and other crimes.

(Mazur) “The rate of incararation for motor vehicle offenses has doubled since 1990. These are drivers, these are specific drivers as to what’s causing the increase in population in corrections.”

(Dillon) The corrections budget has gone up 62% in five years and now totals $76 million. Another reason for the massive budget increase is the large number of offenders on probation. These are people who are out of jail but remain under state supervision.

Probation in Vermont is often longer than the offender’s maximum sentence. Vermont has more than 9,000 people on probation. By comparison, New Hampshire – which has double Vermont’s population – has about 3,600 people on probation. Mazur says the Legislature may want to limit probation and look at alternatives for low-risk offenders.

(Mazur) “You know we have an awful lot of misdemeanors and people who don’t pay restitution. And they go on probation and they are on there indefinitely because the court won’t release them. And can we afford continuing that and is there another way of addressing the issue?”

(Dillon) Steve Gold, the state’s new corrections commissioner, agrees.

(Gold) “I don’t think it serves anybody that well to have people on indefinite probation. I think that people eventually get lost in the shuffle. I think having the Legislature take a look at that and make some decisions would benefit everyone involved in the system.”

(Dillon) Gold was just named to the corrections job on Thursday. He says the oversight committee’s report highlights other key budget issues, such as the growing number of people held in detention before they stand trial.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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