Vt. reform group urges state reduce prison population

State officials, lawmakers and reform groups said many inmates are being held unnecessarily in prison and although releasing them is a priority hurdles remain

By Cory Dawson
Associated Press 

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Many Vermont inmates are being held unnecessarily in prison and although releasing them is a priority hurdles remain, state officials, lawmakers and reform groups said on Wednesday.

Inmates that can't afford bail or whose housing plans have been denied by the state are being held, Suzi Wizowaty, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, said at a news conference at the Statehouse. Her group has recommended that older prisoners and non-violent offenders be treated with more leniency.

Department of Corrections official Derek Miodownik said the state would like to release more people, but some inmates have limited housing options and others are sex offenders whose housing choices are restricted.

Corrections officials sign off on inmates' proposed housing after they've done their time, but they can require inmates to remain in prison if their housing is deemed unsuitable.

Miodownik said Vermont has about 1,800 inmates and that 150 of them have finished their sentences but remain behind bars.

"It's an incredibly tough needle to thread in terms of getting people out in a way that both promotes their ability to live safely and successfully and balances the need for public safety," Miodownik said.

About 50 prisoners remain incarcerated completely arbitrarily, Wizowaty contended, saying that they have finished their sentences, are not sex offenders and have feasible housing options.

"Those people could be let out with a little shift of Department of Corrections policy," she said.

Many of the sex offenders are being held unnecessarily as well, Wizowaty said. State law limits where they can live, but some sex offenders don't pose the threat many believe they do, she said.

About 250 Vermont inmates being housed at a privately-run prison in Michigan have to be out by June 13 because the company cancelled the contract due to financial issues, according to a letter sent to the Vermont Department of Corrections by GEO Group in December.

"We can reduce the prison population enough to bring back the 250 or so men from Michigan and not have to enter into a contract with another for-profit prison corporation," Wizowaty said.

Several state representatives have introduced bills that would address various aspects of Wizowaty's plan. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said she supported measures that would get people out of prison who don't need to be there.

"We have a very tight budget, and we need to reduce unnecessary spending including the cost of locking people up who don't really need it," Johnson said.

Several bills moving through the House would offer more parole opportunities for inmates over 65 years old, outlaw the use of private prisons by the state and release prisoners even if their housing hasn't been approved by corrections officials.

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