Bill Schubart: Crime and punishment issues continue to confound Vermont
The many challenges Vermont faces today require courage, bold thinking, and leadership if they are to be resolved.
In the past, we have sometimes seen a leader emerge with the courage to initiate the necessary changes, even if it jeopardizes his own political future. But far too often, “leadership” focuses on political survival rather than taking the risks that solutions require.
Navigating the ship of state through the melting icebergs of endless change is, of course, a perilous political journey, but the captain of the ship is responsible for the safety and future of all passengers on board.
One of these “icebergs” is the criminal justice system. The “locker mob” pleads for harsher and faster prosecutions and punishments based on the Old Testament doctrine of punishment and imaginary “public safety”.
But a factual view of our criminal justice system knows that neither the fear of jail nor the death penalty do much to curb crime, because most crimes are committed impulsively. They also know that restorative justice not only meets the needs of the victim and society, but also those of the criminal, resulting in lower rates of recidivism and reincarceration.
We also know that the lion’s share of crime stems from growing poverty, untreated mental illnesses and untreated substance abuse disorders. Vermont has taken small steps to address it, but we and much of the nation seem either clueless or unwilling to advance and fund policies that reduce poverty and hunger, or expand treatment options. for the mentally ill or those addicted to alcohol, street or street. pharmaceutical drugs.
Drugs and mental health
For decades we have stood idly by as the omnipotent pharmaceutical industry, aided by McKinsey, sold addictive drugs with impunity in our poorest communities, even as we prosecuted the young men of these communities and condemned them. to long prison sentences for selling illegal drugs. Of the 263,000 prescription opioid deaths over the past decade, how many were prosecuted for homicides against Pharma executives?
Meanwhile, Vermont’s poverty rate is slowly rising. The same is true for the reported incidence of young people with mental health problems.
The number of young people in the emergency room at UVM Medical Center seeking help for severe symptoms of mental stress – such as suicide attempts or ideation, self-harm, eating disorders and depression – can sometimes exceed 20. They may be there for several weeks, as the possibilities for referral to treatment are very limited.
According to The Atlantic, the number of young people experiencing “lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness” has risen from 26% in 2009 to 44% in 2021. Vermont has not been immune to this disturbing change.
The number of residential treatment center options in Vermont for substance abuse disorders is insufficient, and the cost is unaffordable to most drug addicts, although insurance may cover some forms of treatment.
And now, with the recent success of the anti-reproductive rights faction on the Supreme Court, this country is poised to birth some half a million unwanted children every year in an America that generally rejects any new spending on their care. (There were 930,000 abortions last year in the United States)
Add to that the expansion of concealed gun rights, which will increase the number of guns flooding American homes. Just under 20 million guns were purchased in the United States last year.
These two events bode ill for addressing the genesis of criminal behavior.
How the court system works
Meanwhile, when it comes to the conduct of prosecutions, reformist and mainstream sides are often misinformed about how the criminal justice system works, making it all the easier to adhere to preferred orthodoxy.
As in most complex systems involving people – among them education, health care, the economy and the environment – policies involving the criminal justice system must be informed by facts rather than emotions if we want to make them effective.
Recently, State’s Attorney Sarah George gave a lucid and apolitical insight into how the system works in law and in practice, which I think would surprise many. It made me.
The process begins when the police notify a prosecutor of an alleged crime. Prosecutors review “officer filings” and exercise significant discretion over how they forward a case to the court system. Professional policing is often a predicate of successful prosecutions.
An ill-informed but common assumption is that many reformist state attorneys just let people get away with it, but that just isn’t confirmed in the process.
“Reform” of the criminal justice system is not about being “soft on crime”. It is about being fair, transparent and taking into account all interests, including those of the alleged perpetrator, the victim and society as a whole.
In fact, given the political history of prosecutions, particularly in the South and particularly against people of color, the wave of enlightened prosecution reform sweeping the country today is welcome. It is driven by many hard-learned lessons.
10% of the state budget
Extrapolating from the 281 known DNA exonerations in the US since the late 1980s, a conservative estimate is that 4-6% of the US prison population, or approximately 20,000 people, have been wrongfully convicted.
In fact, since the late 1980s, there have been as many as 850 exemptions nationwide, according to University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, a leading researcher in the field. We also know that the threat of punishment does little to deter crime. Yet, on a per capita basis, the United States imprisons more than almost any other country in the world, including China and Russia.
Vermont spends about $150 million each year on corrections, or about 10% of the state’s overall budget. It costs an average of $50,000 a year to keep a Vermont inmate in prison. The United States as a whole spends $81 billion a year.
Given Governor Scott’s ‘affordability agenda’, what if, like in other complex systems, we were to move that investment upstream to provide treatment for mental illness, substance abuse disorders and also change our tax system and our social safety net systems to reduce poverty and homelessness?
Why not stop them from going to jail?
But no. A recent article in VTDigger outlines a state plan to design a new prison complex. Global architectural design firm HOK, which has 24 offices on three continents, has been hired for $282,660 to design a new Vermont prison complex and released this report. Curiously, the proposed facility would accommodate double the number of women currently incarcerated.
The most damning statistic comes from Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Between 2017 and 2019, 85% of women incarcerated there were due to probation violations, often the result of poverty or pre-existing conditions. According to Tronsgard-Scott, only a dozen women are currently serving long prison sentences, or one-sixteenth of the proposed facility’s population.
Have any of Vermont’s 250 AIA architects been consulted? Wouldn’t it make more sense to turn the vacant Vermont State University dorms in Lyndon, Johnson, and Randolph into a low-security facility?
Vermonters need to understand that the outcome of this election will say more about our priorities as a society than it does about the state of law enforcement in Chittenden County. Given that crime is fueled by untreated mental health, poverty, hunger, drug addiction and a tidal wave of available guns and unwanted children, what if we were to tackle the elements that fuel crime instead of just locking up the offenders?
We must invest upstream, in prevention, part of the $150 million we are spending today on punishment and all of the $100 million in capital expenditures proposed for a new penitentiary complex. Imagine what $150 million could do to reduce crime.
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