Campaign Countdown: Scott, Hallquist on crime

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) We close out our Campaign Countdown coverage of the governor's race in Vermont with the candidates weighing in on criminal justice reform.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic challenger Christine Hallquist want to eliminate Vermont's out-of-state prison population but have different ideas on how to achieve it. Our Neal Goswami spoke to both about their ideas.

"I think we have a lot of work to do in with criminal justice reform," Hallquist said. "I think we've just started to scratch the surface on what can be done."

Vermont currently has 1,727 inmates serving time behind bars. Hallquist says half of them are low-level offenders who are not dangerous and could be released, especially those struggling with substance abuse or mental health disorders. She wants to spread treatment courts around the state.

"The treatment courts are an excellent alternative to incarceration, costs about a third as much to put someone through treatment court as it does to put them in prison," Hallquist said.

She says reducing the inmate population will free up tax dollars which she would reinvest in free college tuition for some low-income Vermonters.

"If we can show how we won't be throwing people in prison and that we'll be saving money on prisons, I think most Vermonters will recognize those numbers and the importance of that," Hallquist said.

The governor disagrees.

"If it was doable, I think it would have been done by now," he said.

Vermont doesn't have enough cells to house all of its inmates. Scott recently signed off on moving more than 200 prisoners from Pennsylvania to Mississippi. But he doesn't like sending inmates out of state, either.

"I'd like to see all of our offenders housed in Vermont and eventually we'll get there," Scott said.

Inmates have been serving time out of state long before Phil Scott became governor. He says the out-of-state inmate population is now 214. Back in 2012, it was 468. He pitched a plan earlier this year for a new prison and mental health complex which would allow all of Vermont's inmates to serve time in the state.

"But that was met with resistance," Scott said. "So we're going to continue to work on that because I think that's part of the answer in the future. It's just not realistic to do anything different. I don't believe we have a whole lot of choice at this time."

Scott says those who remain behind bars aren't people the state should be releasing.

"Now, we're getting to where the majority of them are felons," he said. "These aren't soft crimes. These are felons. Some are dangerous, so our first obligation is to keep Vermonters safe."

Scott says he'll continue to work with lawmakers on criminal justice reforms like adding transitional housing, so the prison population can be further reduced.