(Host) Officials in several Vermont towns have taken the state to task over the number former prison inmates living in their communities.
In the first of a two-part report, VPR’s Steve Zind reports that some communities are questioning Department of Corrections policy and want the state keep people in prison longer.
(Zind) The recently released annual crime statistics contain encouraging news for many Vermont communities: Overall, crime rates are down. But the figures aren’t so good for Bellows Falls. The village has the highest rate in the state in what are called “Part Two” crimes. These crimes involve drug offenses, family violence, disorderly conduct and simple assault.
Bellows Falls Police Chief Fred Gardy says when he goes down the list of Vermont communities with high rates of these crimes, he notices something else. Like Bellows Falls, these communities also have a higher than average percentage of people living in them who are under Department of Corrections supervision. Gardy says the numbers and his experience tell him there may be a connection that isn’t always obvious:
(Gardy) “I know of one person who is under Corrections supervision who’s living in a house that at the same time drug dealing goes on in the next apartment. I’m not saying that that person’s involved in drug dealing. But I am saying that person’s street smart enough to know that there’s a problem going on, yet we’re not getting a phone call from that person.”
(Zind) In Barre, officials question why the city has almost triple the number of Corrections supervised people as neighboring Montpelier. Mayor Harry Monti says people in Barre are concerned for their safety:
(Monti) “The statement’s been made in Barre, We have a jail without walls.’ There’s a lot of truth to that.”
(Zind) According to the Department of Corrections, almost 400 people in Barre are under Department supervision. That’s about 4% of the city’s population. The state average is closer to 2%. Communities like Bennington, Winooski and Brattleboro also have a significantly higher than average percentage of people under Department supervision.
The vast majority of these people are serving suspended sentences. Their offenses weren’t serious enough warrant jail sentences. A small number are parolees and furloughees. They’ve finished serving their minimum prison sentences and have been released into the community. These are the people that concern local officials. They have about a 50% chance of re-offending.
Corrections Commissioner John Gorczyk says except for paroled sex offenders and a few other individuals, the Department has no control over where released prisoners live. Gorczyk says housing costs are one factor, but usually there’s a very simple reason why people end up in certain communities once they get out of prison:
(Gorczyk) “It’s usually where they lived before they were incarcerated. They go home, like most people.”
(Zind) Gorczyk says the number of Corrections supervised people in a community is a symptom, not a cause of problems. He points to figures showing higher than average rates of poverty, teen pregnancy, and child abuse in Barre.
(Gorczyk) “The overall community profile in Barre reflects the level of their social health. There are some problems that I think need to be addressed in Barre.”
(Zind) But Barre Mayor Monti says his city isn’t to blame for it’s troubles.
(Monti) “When you say, It’s all Barre people,’ I disagree. It’s not Barre people. It’s transients from out of town.”
(Zind) Monti says Barre has to spend extra money on additional policing to deal with Corrections supervised people. He’d like to see the state help pay the added costs, but he says there’s a larger problem.
(Monti) “Barre’s problem is not Barre’s problem. Barre’s problem is the system’s. They have decided that putting these people in jail is not the answer.”
(Zind) Monti and Bellows Falls Police Chief Fred Gardy say more people should be serving more time in prison. Gorcyck says that’s already happening:
(Gorczyk) “We’re incarcerating a lot more people in Vermont. Two to three times more people in Vermont are locked up per 100,000 in population than ever before.”
(Zind) Corrections officials say a new program could address community concerns. The Offender Responsibility Planning Program would create local boards to work with offenders who are reentering the community.
As for putting more people in jail, Gorczyk says even if more people were imprisoned, the affect on the crime rate would be minimal. And given the costs of incarcerating more people and the state’s budget situation, that’s unlikely to happen.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Barre.
Read Part Two of this report:
Escalating costs impact Department of Corrections