Week 13 : April 9th to April 12th
Food and Prisons
There are some advantages to being a Legislator. You get fed a lot and you get to visit interesting places. Last week the Junior Iron Chiefs treated us all to some really good food. There were nearly a dozen teams serving up sumptuous repasts in the cafeteria one day. The picture shows the Speaker (Mitzy Johnson) at one of the tables.
Last week my committee (Corrections & Institutions) visited the Vermont prison near St. Albans. We took most of the day for a fairly comprehensive tour. That's also where they make the Vermont license plates which was particularly interesting.
Break in the Action
The legislative lull continued as there was not much controversy on the floor. We also received news that one legislator died unexpectedly, which broke the legislative stride for some of the week. This coming Wednesday there will be a funeral in Springfield that will take most of that day off the calendar. The Chair of our committee was particularly close to the gentleman who died, so she has not really been herself all week.
However, there is a lot going on in the background: paid family leave, minimum wage, marijuana tax and regulate, lead testing and a gun bill. There are rumors that the gun bill, requiring a 24 hour waiting period, will not come out this biennium. There's only four or five weeks left in the session.
Good time, Presumptive Parole and MAT
In committee we have been hitting a couple subjects pretty hard: Good Time (as explained in last week's post) and MAT (Medically Assisted Treatment) for opioide addition. We heard more testimony on Good Time and started marking up a bill. This, and Presumptive Parole (explained later in this post) are the result of Senate movement to get more inmates out of our prisons and into community based organizations. Our committee and the Department of Corrections (DOC) believe that we are pretty much down to the really dangerous ones in Corrections Facilities and can't release more.
MAT has become an issue because the cost is far greater than we anticipated. Last session we passed a bill allowing MAT in corrections facilities. Primarily this means the distribution of buprenorphine to inmates who require it. It seems a lot more "require it" than we thought. It's a messy issue and directly relates to a bill (H.162) soon to be considered by the House. The bill decriminalizes buprenorpohine. On the one hand we're distributing a opioide to our prisoners, on the other hand we're providing the medical treatment they need in order to avoid the more dangerous addition to heroine or fentanyl and the risk of overdose. Understanding requires a different way of thinking: some require caffeine, some require blood pressure medication or anti-depressants, or insulin in order to stabilize their lives. Others require buprenorphine. I don't think I'm quite there yet, but I'm trying to figure it out. We took a bit of testimony from experts, including the chief of police in Burlington.
Currently, when an inmate reaches their minimum sentence, they are eligible for parole. There is a hearing by the parole board. The DOC makes a recommendation to that board. Generally DOC does not recommend that an inmate be put on parole right out of prison. Instead they recommend some form of furlough. Furlough keeps tighter reins on the inmate, though the offender is outside the walls of the facility. After an offender has completed a period of furlough, the parole board may decide to put the offender on parole. Presumptive parole says that it is presumed that the inmate will be put on parole. DOC has to show the parole board why the inmate should NOT be paroled instead of the other way around. I'm skeptical of the change. So far, the only suggestion has been some sort of study to determine what this really means and what the consequences might be. I'm supporting that.
What if we're wrong?
This morning I had a sudden revelation: we might be wrong. Or at least our approach might be wrong.
There has been much discussion inside and outside the committee about the replacement of the women's prison in South Burlington. Everyone agrees that something has to be done. Some advocate a new prison of about the same capacity (150 beds). Others think we don't need to incarcerate that many women, if any at all. The committee's rebuttal has been to look at the crimes committed by the inmates and say, "Which of these do you think we should let out?" Most of those being held there have committed serious crimes.
However, in other conversations we say that the severity of the crime is not the way we decide where and how a person should be held. Instead we talk about Risk and Need. Is this offender's risk level high enough to justify holding him/her? There are assessments done by DOC that determine an offender's risk level. Their needs are defined by the kind of programming they might need. So, instead of looking at the offenses charged to the women at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF), we should be looking at what their risk levels are. We also should be looking at how that risk level is determined to see if it is reliable and used properly. We have not really looked into how the decision is made as to who is held and who is released to a community program, once they are sentenced. When I think about this, it seems a glaring error. I'm on it !
Next week we loose most of Wednesday to the funeral and Friday to it being Good Friday. But there should be some important bills coming out of committees. I'm just not sure which.