ACLU wants to shrink prison population

MONTPELIER — James Lyall says he is confident Vermont can cut its prison population in half, and he’s launching a campaign to help the state do just that.
Lyall, who is executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke at a Statehouse press conference Wednesday to announce the organization’s new initiative to reduce Vermont’s incarcerated population.
Lyall said while Vermont has made progress in getting the numbers down, more needs to be done, and at a faster pace.
“It’s critical we invest more energy and make a more concerted effort to expand and accelerate the movement to reform here in Vermont,” Lyall said.
The Vermont ACLU held the press conference to announce the launch of a statewide advocacy campaign, Smart Justice Vermont. Lyall said the campaign does not have a specific timeline for reaching its goal.
“We believe that we can move deliberately toward cutting our prison population in the state in half,” he said. “That is a target, a goal, but it is by no means the limit of what can be done.”
Vermont’s prison population is currently about 1,700, including more than 200 inmates serving time in an out-of-state facility in Pennsylvania.
To achieve its goal, the Vermont ACLU initiative includes bail and sentencing reforms, drug policy changes and greater investment in rehabilitation programs. The organization is pushing for legislation, including measures that would do the following:
•  Set procedures for the compassionate release of inmates with serious medical conditions rendering them unlikely to present a danger to society.
•  Prohibit incarcerating inmates after their minimum release date because they do not have appropriate housing.
•  Expand access to drug and DUI treatment courts statewide.
Bill Cobb, the ACLU’s deputy director of the national Smart Justice initiative, also spoke at the press conference Wednesday. He said he served time in the Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, where Vermont’s out-of-state inmates are currently incarcerated.
He said he served time years ago for felony convictions, including kidnapping and robbery. Now, he said, he’s a productive member of society and a leader in the push for criminal justice reforms.
“Pennsylvania state prisons are no place for Vermonters to be,” Cobb said. “Vermont’s prisons and jails are no place for Vermonters to be.”
The campaign goals include reducing racial disparities for those jailed in Vermont, Cobb said.
“To think that out of 1,700 people … to have the worst racial disparities among black men in the nation is something that this group assembled and those who are working to reform our criminal justice system can reverse,” he said. “One out of 14 black men in the state is incarcerated today.”
Nico Amador, an ACLU of Vermont community organizer, said the campaign also focuses on the role of the elected county prosecutors in Vermont’s criminal justice system.
“State’s Attorneys — who are all elected officials — have enormous discretion to decide who goes to prison and for how long,” according to Amador. “It’s time for a conversation between Vermont’s state’s attorneys and their constituents about how we can end mass incarceration and eliminate racial disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system.”
Speakers Wednesday panned a proposed $150 million prison plan that was presented last week in a report from the administration of Gov. Phil Scott.
“Let’s think about the possibilities if we responded to crime, drug usage differently,” Cobb said. “One hundred and fifty million dollars divided by 1,700 people. What amount of investment is a life worth?”

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