ACLU pushes Vermont lawmakers for prison reform

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) We are just months away from Vermont's legislative session and social advocates are already gearing up to pitch new policies to lawmakers.

Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union laid down a plan which they hope will give lawmakers the data to pass meaningful criminal justice reform. Our Calvin Cutler has more what they want to see this session.

The ACLU pitched their "Blueprint for Smart Justice" which they hope will be a tool for lawmakers to draft new laws.

Nationally, they want to cut the nation's prison population by half. Though Vermont's overall jail population is on the decline, advocates say more should be done to address racial disparity in the system.

The number of incarcerated people in Vermont peaked at over 2,200 people in 2009. Advocates say new laws over the last decade have helped drive down that number to 1,700 people today.

On Tuesday, the ACLU pitched its plan to further reduce Vermont's jail population and to shift toward a system of treatment.

First, they want to curb disproportionate racial incarceration rates. In 2017, the incarceration rate for black adults was seven times higher than for white adults.

"Sometimes that's the primary earner that's now taken out of the home. And in a state where we're rural and we're all working class, taking that person out puts that family on a trajectory of poverty," said Ashley Messier of the ACLU of Vermont.

The ACLU is pushing several reforms to help eliminate racial disparity and reduce the overall prison population. Tops on the list is eliminating the cash bail system that keeps defendants behind bars while they await trial. They also want to decriminalize prostitution and possession of narcotics so the penalty would be similar to a traffic ticket.

"We also support decriminalizing all drugs and we think that's something that the state should be looking at, as well," said Falko Schilling of the ACLU of Vermont.

Advocates also aim to provide more treatment and support for people with mental health and drug abuse disorders. Their plan also calls for greater transparency and data collection policies to help the public understand decisions about what cases the state chooses to prosecute.

"Prosecutors should be held accountable. We should collect data on our decision-making, there should be transparency in our system because at the end of the day people have to trust that the system is working for them," said T.J. Donovan, D-Vt. Attorney General.

And though the ACLU admits there will be upfront costs associated with the reforms, they say money can be shifted around to cover costs.

"If we can think about how to make our system work better, there's an opportunity to use the dollars we're already spending and spend them smarter," Schilling said.

This all comes after last summer when the Legislature expanded its youthful offender program, allowing nonviolent offenders under 21 to be tried in juvenile court.