The ultimate role of a prosecutor is to seek justice. My office is shocked and dismayed by the reports of maltreatment and exploitation of female inmates at the Chittenden County Correctional Facility. Our commitment to public safety and justice necessarily includes those committed to the custody and care of the Department of Corrections. Fortunately, investigation into this situation is underway and our state leadership is clearly committed to ensuring accountability. However, looking beyond the immediate situation, it is time to begin a long-overdue conversation on inmate welfare and the health of our corrections system.
For too long, discussion of prisons and inmates in Vermont has centered on two topics: (1) reduction of the total population behind bars by a set number or percentage, and (2) the merits of building a new prison, private or otherwise, in the state. Unfortunately, these discussions have been subject to political and interest-group jockeying that has crowded out focus on inmate welfare, including living conditions, quality of life and the rehabilitative opportunities available.
Vermont can stand proud of its progress on criminal-justice reform, including the expansion of youthful-offender jurisdiction, presumptive diversion in many cases and bail reform; yet, to this point, there has not been a catalyst to fundamentally re-assess the welfare and rehabilitation of incarcerated offenders.
Prosecutors have significant influence within the criminal justice system, but are only one part of a complex justice ecosystem. In areas where we exercise broader discretion, progress has been made in reducing the number of cases in the “traditional” justice system pipeline. In just two years, statewide court-diversion referrals have increased drastically: nearly one out of every three misdemeanor cases are now sent to court diversion. Likewise, despite being in the throes of a drug epidemic, Vermont’s prison population has continued a decline that began more than 10 years ago. Increasingly, prosecutors, defense counsel and courts are working collaboratively to achieve non-traditional outcomes — whether through treatment courts, use of restorative-justice practices, or relying on community-based supervision through the Department of Corrections.
One of the most difficult aspects of our work involves reaching resolutions that effectively balance public safety, the wishes of victims, survivors and community members in relation to the harm caused by criminal behavior — as well as trying to identify the unmet or unrecognized rehabilitation needs of offenders. Soft social work is now fully embedded in our day-to-day work in the court system.
No matter how aggressively we divert cases from the court system or how much we prioritize community-based resolutions, Vermont will continue to have an incarcerated population. In some cases, a secure facility is the only option to manage or reduce risk and to ensure public safety. We must work collaboratively with all partners in the justice system to ensure imprisonment is actually meaningful in meeting those goals.
It is no secret that Vermont’s prison infrastructure is dated and poorly designed to support the type of rehabilitation called for by today’s complex cases — often involving intersecting mental health, substance abuse concerns, ingrained poverty and trauma histories. Vermont incarcerates approximately 1,700 people — mostly instate. In June 2019, a majority (60% overall) were incarcerated for serious felony offenses, e.g., violent offenses like homicide, sexual assault or aggravated domestic assault — in contrast to only 5% serving time or held pretrial for misdemeanor offenses. Perhaps more surprising is that only 5% of the population were serving sentences for felony or misdemeanor drug offenses. (See https://legislature.vermont.gov/Documents/2020/WorkGroups/Justice%20Oversight/DOC/W~Michael%20Touchette~DOC%20Update~6-20-2019.pdf).
The challenges presented by today’s complex incarcerated population have stressed a legacy prison system that was not designed around intensive rehabilitation or a high proportion of violent offenders. The corrections system is further stressed by the uneven distribution, and general lack of, sober or transitional housing for offenders returning to our communities — Washington County is currently without any dedicated sober or transitional housing for women.
As Vermonters, we pride ourselves on pragmatism and the Yankee spirit of getting things done with limited resources — yet, there are limits to what ingenuity alone can achieve. The Department of Corrections has many talented and dedicated professionals who care deeply about the population they serve. Acknowledging there are bad actors in the Department of Corrections system should not detract from recognizing that a majority of employees, situated as our neighbors and community members, are committed to doing their job ethically and effectively. They face great challenges — namely an aged and inefficient infrastructure and difficulty coordinating responses within the Agency of Human Services framework. Limited tools and aged infrastructure are impediments to empowering our Department of Corrections professionals to do what Vermonters expect: to effectively rehabilitate people who face profound challenges.
If any good is to come from the reported abuses in Chittenden County, we must acknowledge the “million dollar question” is how to fund the investment needed to improve the system. It is hard to have that discussion without first acknowledging most of the Department of Corrections budget is committed to the fixed costs of operating dated and inefficient facilities. Consolidation into centralized facilities that are co-located with treatment and educational resources is the most financially viable path forward, and would ensure meaningful improvements in the welfare of our community members who are incarcerated.
If we truly want a system of corrections that reflects Vermont values, then we must consider new infrastructure and increase the number of available beds in sober and transitional housing facilities for inmates reintegrating into their communities. It is abundantly clear we can no longer tolerate the status quo of aged infrastructure and patchwork services. In my office, we often reflect that the offenders in court today are our victims or witnesses tomorrow, and moreover, are frequently our neighbors and community members. Treating them with respect and dignity while they pay their debt to society or work toward rehabilitation is fundamental to our mission of justice.
Rory T. Thibault is the Washington County State’s Attorney.