MONTPELIER — The state should be collecting more data on the people in its jails awaiting trial, so it can better assess which defendants could be released, researchers with the Council of State Governments told a panel of lawmakers Tuesday.
The Department of Corrections has been wrestling with ways to free up space in Vermont jails and bring back inmates shipped to out-of-state facilities. But beds must be reserved for people who are being detained before going on trial.
Many of the detainees are held because they cannot post bail, while others are held without bail because they are considered to be a risk to the public or because there is cause to believe they may not attend future court proceedings.
Corrections has budgeted for only about 300 such detainees. But Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito told the Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee on Tuesday that the state is holding 422 detainees.
The committee also heard analysis from representatives from the Council of State Governments, a group that helps share policy ideas with state government officials on a regional and national basis.
Jessy Tyler, a research manager with the council’s Justice Center, said Vermont has seen a significant increase in the detainee population in recent years.
According to Tyler, the average daily population of detainees jumped 26 percent between fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2013. There was a peak in fiscal 2010 followed by two years of declines, but that drop was quickly replaced by a 16 percent spike over the past two years, she said.
Lawmakers opted in 2011 to begin budgeting for an average daily population of 300. That number was set when it appeared the decline was a trend, Tyler said. But the state has not seen 300 or fewer detainees on a daily basis since before fiscal year 2001, she said.
“It was just a year that you had particularly low numbers and the trend looked like it was going downward,” Tyler said. “It was just sort of this low point.”
The proportion of out-of-state residents detained before trial has not changed. Tyler said her research showed that out-of-state detainees remained at 8 percent.
But other factors do offer some insight into the spike.
Only 21 more criminal charges were filed in 2013 than in 2008, according to Tyler. But the types of charges have changed.
“You can easily think, ‘Well, that’s a wash. It shouldn’t have an impact on the detentions,’” she said.
Misdemeanor charges were reduced by 2 percent, but the number of felony charges increased by 7 percent between the 2008 and 2013 fiscal years. That resulted in 422 more detentions, according to Tyler.
“It’s getting to be a bit more severe of a population, and we think it has to do with the type of increase,” she said. “Felony charges would make a person more likely to get detained.”
The state had a significant increase in serious violent felonies as well as felony drug charges. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Sears, D-Bennington, said lawmakers should think carefully about looking to release pretrial detainees given those statistics.
“You add those two together and you begin to wonder if detention is the right place to reduce numbers,” he said.
Vermont, like other states, is seeing a trend in higher bail amounts, according to Tyler. Fewer people are able to post bail and be released as a result. The average bail amount has increased from $42,000 to about $44,000 since the 2008 fiscal year.
“I would say that we have seen bail rising … and the inability for people to meet that 10 percent threshold to pay has also decreased,” she told the committee.
Hallie Fader-Towe, the courts program director for the Council of State Governments, said the state should be collecting more data on detainees to help identify those who are a low flight risk or low risk to reoffend while on release. The state should also focus on improving pretrial services in the community, she said.
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