(Host) It’s no secret that Vermont’s prisons are overcrowded. The state Corrections Department has to ship hundreds of inmates out-of-state because there’s no room in the local jails. But one reason for the overcrowding is the growing number of people who are locked up before they’re convicted of a crime.
VPR’s John Dillon reports.
(Dillon) Not everyone in Vermont prisons is serving a sentence. In fact, about 20% of the prison population is presumed innocent under the law. That’s because these inmates are being held without bail, or because they couldn’t come up with the money to make bail. They wait in prison for weeks or months until trial.
John Perry runs the planning office at the state Corrections Department. He says the growing number of pre-trial detainees has strained the system:
(Perry) “The detention population has been increasing faster than we had been projecting, which has essentially meant the population is growing faster than we had been building to accommodate. That’s one of the reasons we have the numbers out of state that we do.”
(Dillon) Vermont’s prisons hold about 370 people who are waiting for their day in court. That’s more than double the level four years ago. Perry says a major reason for the high number of detainees is a change in Vermont’s bail statute. The Legislature in 1995 rewrote the law so judges can hold people without bail if they’re a threat to public safety.
(Perry) “From a defense perspective, they’re innocent. From the perspective of the prosecution and police, they pose a risk. The Legislature decided to err on the side of risk.”
(Dillon) Defense lawyers also point out that three of the most overcrowded jails hold the greatest number of pre-trial detainees. More than half the beds at community correctional facilities in St. Johnsbury, Rutland and South Burlington are filled by detainees.
Seth Lipschutz represents inmates at the defender general’s office. He recently settled a lawsuit against the Rutland jail over crowded conditions. Lipschutz says the situation is particularly bad in Rutland, where over 70% of the inmates are on pre-trial detention:
(Lipschutz) “The stresses on the system have affected everybody. They’ve certainly affected the Department of Corrections, who are trying to cope with the situation. They’ve affected the Defender General’s office. It certainly affected the prisoners as well, in terms of the overcrowding. Everybody’s suffering from this.”
(Dillon) The state is now building a new $26 million prison in Springfield. The prison will hold 350 inmates and it’s expected to be full as soon as it opens in August 2003.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.