Governor Peter Shumlin is celebrating victories in what he calls "the war on recidivism." He says the state has made progress in reducing the prison population while also cutting the crime rate.
The numbers now reverse a trend the state was seeing five years ago, when the prison population was skyrocketing and budgets were escalating for the Department of Corrections.
"Instead of growing by 26 percent, we’ve reduced our prison population significantly," Shumlin said as he released the latest corrections numbers at his weekly news conference. "We’ve done that by reducing crime and making Vermont’s streets safer than they were."
The rate of recidivism – showing how many people who’ve done time return to jail for new crimes – is down by 9 percent, the governor said.
"So this is a great accomplishment," he said. "And we are winning this war on recidivism by a very thoughtful approach of ensuring that we have the programs, preventative programs in our communities, drug and alcohol counseling, housing, education, job training, internships to ensure that we stop the revolving door back into prison."
Bennington Senator Dick Sears chairs the Judiciary Committee and has helped lead legislative efforts on corrections reform.
"Of all the things that I think I’ve done in the Legislature this has probably been the most rewarding," he said.
Sears said the prison population swelled across the country in the 1990s as judges and state lawmakers increased sentences for a variety of crimes. But he said the focus in Vermont now is on incarcerating violent offenders, while finding alternative programs for non violent criminals.
"Today we’re actually locking up more violent offenders, more sex offenders, than ever before, which is what our goal was – to leave precious prison space for violent offenders," Sears said.
The state’s success has come through investments in drug treatment programs, transitional housing, and by assessing prisoners based on their risk to re-offend.
Mike Thompson from the Council of State Governments said Vermont is a leader in applying evidence-based research as it tries to control the prison population.
"And the state has gotten very, very good at using some of these very science-based tools, to determine, not just based on crime, but based on a litany of factors who is mostly likely to re-offend," Thompson said.
Despite these successes, Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito said there’s much work left to do. He said the state continues to face overcrowding in its prisons and as a result still has to send several hundred inmates out of state.