Panel gets to work implementing criminal justice reform efforts

prison commons
A panel is working on ways to avoid having low-level Vermont offenders wind up back in prison. File photo.

Putting in more work before sentencing offenders can help reduce the number of people who violate conditions that can land them back in jail.  

That’s what a panel of state officials, advocates and lawmakers heard Tuesday during a virtual meeting looking at ways to help implement legislation aimed at keeping people out of Vermont’s criminal justice and prison systems.  

David D’Amora of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center told the panel that, in cases involving a person sentenced to prison or furlough, the Department of Corrections may be called on to conduct a presentence investigation looking at the needs and risk of an offender. 

However, in other cases, such as when an offender is sentenced to only a probationary period, such thorough investigations and reports are not conducted, and some of their needs, from mental health care to substance abuse treatment, are not taken into account. 

“One of the things that is somewhat common, from our perspective, is the people that are sentenced to straight probation do not receive the mental health suite,” he said. 

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D’Amora said he understands conducting such extensive investigations and reports is time-consuming and resource-heavy. 

He added that there might be a way to find a middle ground, with a less extensive report in  probationary cases that looks at the needs of an offender, from drug treatment to housing.  

“The recommendation is that there needs to be better assessments for mental health and substance use prior to sentencing,” D’Amora said, and it appears that in some parts of the state judges had that information and in other parts they did not.

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He said it needs to be consistent throughout the state and provided in a timely manner for judges as decisions are made. 

The criminal justice reform measure passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Phil Scott earlier this year is known as “Justice Reinvestment II.” It builds on an earlier model and looks to make additional reforms to the parole, probation and furlough systems to keep more people out of prison.

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The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center is working with state officials and other stakeholders to help implement those reforms.

Those reforms include allowing inmates facing revocation of their furlough by the corrections department to challenge that action through the courts. 

In tracking furlough violations in 2019, a group working on the justice reinvestment initiative found that 77% of the people readmitted to prison committed technical violations, such as the loss of housing, use of drugs and alcohol, violation of curfews, or “program or work failures.” 

The roughly 20-member group is chaired by Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber and includes officials from corrections and public safety, as well as advocates and social service providers.

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The panel is expected to hold additional meetings leading up early next year when it is expected to issue a report to the Legislature on its work.

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