According to a 2006 U.S. Department of Justice report, Vermont, one of the least populous states in the country, was among the states with the fastest growing prison populations in the nation.1 Vermont’s largest city is home to only 40,000 people, and unlike many other states, its resident population is not growing. Still, between 1996 and 2006, the state’s incarceration rate increased 80 percent, nearly doubling its prison population from 1,058 to 2,123.2
To keep pace with the growth in the prison population, state spending on corrections increased from 4 percent of state general funds in 1990 to 10 percent of state general funds in 2008.While violent and property crime declined sharply in states across the U.S. over the last decade, Vermont’s already low violent crime rate did not drop. In fact, as violent crime declined 31 percent nationally between 1995 and 2005, it increased slightly (2 percent) in Vermont.3
As the number of people in prison climbed, the rate at which people were reincarcerated remained stubbornly high. Fifty percent of people released in 2005 were reconvicted of a new crime. Over several years, policymakers designed numerous innovative strategies, including intensive community-based supervision and substance abuse treatment, to reduce this rate of recidivism, but no data-driven mechanism existed to guide decisions about who received particular resources. Consequently, policymakers could not track the impact of these programs on recidivism rates and public safety.
In 2007, analyses projected that steep prison population growth would continue into the next decade, increasing 23 percent by 2018. Faced with the prospect of contracting for additional capacity in out-of-state facilities or constructing and operating new prisons at an additional cost of between $82 million and $206 million, policymakers had to decide if investing more taxpayer dollars in prison capacity was the best way to lower the state’s high recidivism rate and increase public safety.With bipartisan leadership from the governor and legislative leaders, and with the support of the chief justice, policymakers in Vermont decided to employ a justice reinvestment strategy, using rigorous data analyses to determine how best to increase public safety and save taxpayer dollars.
- William J. Sabol,Todd D. Minton, and Paige M. Harrison, Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2006, Bureau of Justice Statistics, January 2007.
- Unlike most other state departments of corrections,Vermont operates a unified system which maintains jurisdiction over both local jails and state prisons. Consequently, the figures cited here include people with sentences of 1 day or longer—the figures do not include people held in pre-trial detention. Given the differences in how Vermont’s correction system is organized, it is difficult to establish national comparisons of prison population sizes, state incarceration rates, and other criminal justice statistics.
- United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime in the United States, 2006, September 2007. Retrieved November 29, 2007, from http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2006/.