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Lawmakers consider the cost of incarceration - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Lawmakers consider the cost of incarceration

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MONTPELIER, Vt. -

"Incarceration is the most expensive thing that we do in the Department of Corrections," said Vt. Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito.

Locking up one inmate in Vermont comes with a $50,000 a year price tag. That bill is chopped in half if the offender is shipped out-of-state. Still, Vermont spent $139 million on its incarcerated population last year -- an 80-percent jump from just a decade ago.

"The cost of corrections in the State of Vermont is completely unsustainable," said Sen. Tim Ashe (D-Chittenden County). Ashe is working on a fix. He introduced a bill that would require Vermont judges to consider the cost of the sentences they impose. It passed the Senate in February.  "What we're saying is on those low level crimes where people have made some bad decisions, but they haven't made long term, fundamental fatal decisions that we want to best turn their lives around and do it in a way that's affordable to the State of Vermont. And throwing people in jail is not that solution," he said.

Ashe said the proposed legislation would require corrections to provide judges with a cost comparison for sentencing non-violent criminals. The idea would be to weigh the cost of incarceration against less pricey alternatives. A sample menu of options would show a judge that, right now, community diversion costs less than $1 a day; electronic monitoring $14 a day; work crew $48a day; transitional housing $58 a day; residential treatment $98 dollars a day. Prison tops the scale at $156 per day.

"The bill does not say to the judge that you have to issue this sentence because it's the cheapest option," Ashe said.

But it does ask them to add cost to the list of factors they consider -- like an offender's character and criminal history. Vermont would be the first state in the nation to pass such a law. "The only one who's responsible for the cost of the people in my custody, is me. And I haven't sentenced any of them. So I think it shares the burden a little bit," Commissioner Pallito said.

Some judges disagree. Those who oppose it told lawmakers it is inappropriate to consider cost when it comes to sentencing.

"I think that that's nonsense," Pallito said. "I think that you've got to consider the cost of everything we do."

Lawmakers admit it's a break from tradition, but in tough economic times they said it's a tool judges need to use. "Right now they are operating without that information. But we all know that the decisions they make, the judgments they reach, affect taxpayers and affect recidivism rates," Ashe said.

Missouri passed a similar measure three years ago. It allowed judges to consider cost, but it didn't make it a mandatory factor for sentencing.

The House Judiciary Committee is set to debate the Senate's bill Tuesday. Vermont Superior Court Judge Michael Kupersmith is scheduled to testify at that hearing. He declined to speak to WCAX-TV Monday.

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