Women’s prison population grows, even though lawmakers said it shouldn’t

The Burlington Free Press

by Terri Hallenbeck

In 2011, the Legislature boldly declared in the capital budget bill that the Corrections Department should reduce the number of women who are incarcerated by 5 percent.

That didn’t happen, and Monday, as members of the Legislature’s Corrections Oversight Committee gathered, they again wrung their hands over the growing number of women who are incarcerated.

Apparently, simply stating that something should be so does not make it so. This is a lesson that the state’s criminals keep trying to teach legislators and Gov. Peter Shumlin.

The 162 women being held in the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility on Monday was actually down slightly from the 179 of a week ago, Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito said, but the number is getting high enough that he is making plans for the possibility that not all the women will fit in the South Burlington prison, which can hold 184.

Just two years ago, the Shumlin administration and legislators decided moving the state female inmates to the South Burlington prison was a good idea, even as some questioned whether there was enough space there to provide programs that would help keep the women from returning to prison. Now, there may not be enough space for them, period.

Pallito’s new plan would involve sending some women to part of one of the state’s other prisons, where men are housed. That’s something Pallito said he doesn’t like to do, because running a prison for both men and women is even more complicated than running a prison with one or the other. “It’s not a good solution,” he said.

The reason for the increase in the number of female inmates is that judges are ordering more women whose criminal charges are pending to be held in prison, Pallito said. And more of those “detainees” are being held for “non-listed” crimes.

Astute followers of Vermont news will recall that “non-listed” crimes were one of Shumlin’s favorite topics when he was running for governor in 2010. Shumlin wanted to reserve prison for those charged with violent, or “listed” crimes and find alternatives for those charged with non-violent, or “non-listed” crimes.

Shumlin won the election, but is having a harder time winning the Corrections battle. The number of women being held in prison awaiting court on “non-listed” charges has grown from 24 in September 2012 to 35 this month, pushing the women’s population close to the brink.

The governor will be unhappy to hear that, Pallito said, but there’s nothing he can do about it, as judges are the ones who decide who is held pending trial and who is released.

Legislators, meanwhile, said they would discuss the issue at a future meeting. The solution, apparently, will require something other than declaring it shall be otherwise.