TIMES ARGUS 02/16/18
By Michael Shank and Mary Falcon

We don’t need a mega-prison in Vermont. We need a mega-commitment to keeping people out of prison.

When Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille proposed building a new $150 million mega-prison in Vermont with taxpayer money — which CoreCivic (formerly the scandal-ridden Corrections Corporation of America) would build and lease back to the state — he asked, “how do we better take care of all of these populations?” We’ll tell you how. And it won’t cost Vermonters $150 million. It starts with Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan’s call for programs that keep people out of prison in the first place. While the AG’s ask may seem obvious, the state could do more to fully fund it. One of the AG’s recommendations is for more transitional housing, which is a lot cheaper than a mega-prison and essential in helping recently released inmates transition back into society and avoid repeat offending.

We support the AG’s position and would like to expand on how to reduce the population of re-offenders and parole violators. That is, offenders who are released after doing their time only to end up incarcerated a second, third or even fourth time.

What’s driving this recidivism, according to corrections research cited by The New York Times editorial board, is the hair-trigger parole and probation system. While it was originally built to cut costs and deal with minor offenses outside the prison system and reward good behavior and incentivize rehabilitation, it’s now driving recidivism. Rather than equipping the offenders with critical drug treatment or mental health care, they’re being sent back to prison for minor infractions or technical violations.

This isn’t a sustainable practice. According to the Vermont Department of Corrections 2015 Annual Report, more than one-third, or 36 percent, of the Vermont prison population consists of repeat offenders and parole violators. No state can afford this kind of prison population growth, certainly not cash-strapped Vermont. Especially when it’s preventable.

Other options are out there. The Columbia University Justice Lab, for example, recommends a judicial hearing before parole officers can jail people accused of technical violations. They also recommend that we should cap prison and jail terms for minor parole violations and shorten parole terms for people who stay out of trouble for specified periods of time.

This all makes much sense and would be easy to implement. If we follow this example, we could use the savings recovered from a reduction in the prison population to expand education, substance abuse treatment and housing opportunities for parolees who need considerably more help than they’re getting to forge stable lives in their communities.

Instead of taking $150 million from Vermont taxpayers to build a mega-prison that we don’t need, let’s instead fund programs that help Vermonters currently behind bars prepare for the challenges of returning to society and reconnect with their communities and their families. That’s a Vermont taxpaying dollar much better spent with much greater returns to the Vermont economy.

By providing vocational and life skills training, as well as individual treatment and group therapy for drug abusers, sexual offenders and persons with mental illness, we can get Vermonters back on their feet and no longer dependent on the taxpayer paid-for prison system.

Treatment works. We know this. This is what we do as a publisher and worldwide distributor of sexual offender treatment manuals. One of our authors, for example, who conducted a nationwide meta-analysis in 2009 found that sexual offenders who received treatment during their incarceration re-offended at the rate of 10.9 percent. Those who were untreated recidivated at nearly double that rate (19.2 percent). We know, firsthand, that re-entry programs and life-skills training are essential in helping inmates prepare for the roles and responsibilities necessary when returning to the community. And the data show that they’re successful, too.

By helping released prisoners find employment and rebuild their community connections, we also save lives and money. For only $5,000, we can place and retain an ex-offender in a job. That’s a lot less than the over $30,000, on average, to keep someone in prison for a year. If you look at prison-to-work programs in the U.S., recidivism rates for those employed after their release ranged from 3.3 to 8 percent. That’s a significant reduction from the average statewide recidivism rates of 31 to 70 percent.

But there’s more to it than just getting a job. If we want keep people out of prison, it’s going to take a village of volunteers. Circles of support and accountability, or CoSAs, help paroled offenders find homes, get jobs, adhere to the rules of their parole, relearn social skills and form community connections. Professionally supervised, these volunteers meet weekly with the parolee and substantially increase the likelihood of their successful reintegration and rehabilitation.

Vermont’s Department of Corrections has circles of support and accountability programming. Although relatively new, they’re already reducing repeat offenses and parole violations. Of the 21 ex-offenders in the Vermont CoSAs studied by Dr. Kathryn Fox of the University of Vermont in 2013, only one re-offended within a year of release. That puts the CoSA re-offending rate at 0.5 percent as compared with the statewide re-offending rate of 36 percent. Unfortunately, the limited funding provided to this program only allows it to serve a small proportion of the imprisoned population.

As Con Hogan, Vermont’s widely respected and admired former state corrections commissioner and human services secretary, said in his Feb. 1 testimony before the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, “reducing the number of inmates should be our first priority, not building more beds.” We couldn’t agree more. As stated above, the road map to reduction is clear. We know what works. We’ve seen it. Now, it’s up to the state to fund it.

Mary Falcon is executive director and Michael Shank serves on the board of directors for Safer Society Foundation, based in Brandon.