A group of state officials, including the leaders of several agencies, representatives of Gov. Phil Scott’s administration and state representatives, have begun meeting with a goal of finding ways that federal funds can be used to reduce the state’s prison population and the rate at which offenders return to criminal activity.

The Justice Reinvestment II Working Group met on Aug. 26 to get a report on the status of the trends in criminal activity and Vermont prisons. The goal is to use the data to determine what other information could be valuable and to make policy recommendations to the Legislature for their 2020 Legislative session.

Christopher Herrick, acting commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said he thought the organizing meeting went well.

“I think that the right people were in the room. You’ve got all the representatives from the committees in the Legislature, you have the governor’s office, you have folks from Public Safety, Corrections and all aspects of criminal justice. You had the chief justice there, chairing the meeting,” he said.

Paul Reiber, chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, is chairman of the working group.

“I think just the fact that you had a roomful of 25 or 30 folks that represent various and wide-ranging areas indicates the high level of commitment that the state has toward looking at the issues and also understanding how complex the issues are,” Herrick added.

Vermont’s first Justice Reinvestment working group started in 2007. Recommendations from that group resulted in a decrease in the prison population of 16% from 2008 to 2018 rather than the increase of 24% that had been projected before the intervention of the Justice Reinvestment group.

In a statement, Gov. Phil Scott said the second work group will build on the progress from the first group and provide detailed information that can be used to ensure public safety while improving the future of people who go through the corrections system.

“Vermont has been a leader in pursuing policy interventions that improve public safety and public health outcomes for our citizens, and this work is particularly important as the opioid epidemic continues to impact our state,” Scott said.

Falko Schilling, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said the group that met last week will build on the work that started in 2007.

“We at the ACLU of Vermont are very excited that the state has made a commitment to creating a smarter criminal justice system. … It was also exciting to be in that room and see people from all the branches of government and from different political parties and different advocacy organizations sitting down and beginning the conversation of how we can find solutions and move forward together. We expect that criminal justice reform is going to be a front-burner issue in the legislative session this year. That’s something we’re going to be engaging with every step of the way,” Schilling said.

The presentation on Aug. 26 found flaws in the system and the information that was available. For instance, as of 2017, the incarceration for blacks in Vermont was almost 10 times the rate for whites.

While the initial report found that 80% of the total population under state correctional control is on probation or parole supervision, no data was readily available on how many people on probation are revoked, the reasons people are revoked and the resulting length of stay in a correctional facility.

Schilling said the “holes” in the information available stuck out to him and others at the first meeting.

“That is another thing that we’re going to be continuing to talk about in this coming year is how to improve that picture so we can make smart decisions and make sure the actions we take are the best ones for Vermonters,” he said.

Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health Sarah Squirell said the initial meeting left her thinking “Vermont has a real opportunity to really work together to address the urgent and important issues regarding criminal justice and mental health trends and challenges.”

“Having folks from Mental Health, from (the Department of Health’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs) at the table from the beginning so we can think collectively about criminal justice, behavioral health trends and challenges which are inclusive of both mental health and substance use issues is just the right way to address creating meaningful solutions that we can all see ourselves in,” she said.

Squirrel said she was also encouraged that the group talked about way to maximize diverting people who were suffering mental health challenges toward treatment rather than simply incarceration and punishment.

The working group is expected to meet three more times before creating recommendations that will be put before the Legislature during their upcoming session.

patrick.mcardle @rutlandherald.com

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