High Detainee Population Strains Prison System

11/16/12 5:50PM By John Dillon
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Vermont is seeing an increase in the number of people held in jail while waiting for trial.

The surge in the detainee population is straining the Corrections Department budget and has led to more prisoners being sent out of state.

The corrections system mainly houses offenders serving out their sentences. But there are also hundreds of people behind bars awaiting trial - or who couldn't make bail set by a judge

Right now, there are 425 people in detention, well above the legislature's target of 300 detainees.

Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito says the high detainee population has a ripple effect throughout the system, since every bed occupied by a person in detention means one that can't be filled by a person who's been sentenced.

"So it's presenting a couple of issues," he says. "One, what's leading to that increase but it's also presenting a budget challenge which is what the Legislature is most focused on."

If a prisoner can't be housed in Vermont, they're sent out of state at a cost of about $25,000 a year.

Pallito says the higher-than-expected number of detainees means the state will have to spend an additional $3.5 million in next year's budget just to send prisoners out of state.

"The administration's been meeting with the Judiciary to try and come up with ways to divert some of that detention out of correctional facility beds and into some community placements," he says. "We don't have a proposal together yet. We're still working with the Judiciary."

The Legislature's Corrections Oversight Committee heard different explanations for why there are more people in detention in Vermont prisons.

Administrative Judge Amy Davenport says some state's attorneys ask - and some judges impose - higher bail. And, she says, the court system has seen a jump this summer and fall in domestic violence cases, which leads to more people in detention.

Davenport adds that judges are also dealing with a decline in pre-trial services that allowed people to remain out of jail. In the past, she says, a judge could require that those waiting for trial be screened for alcohol or drug uses. But tight budgets have limited that option.

"Now in most counties, law enforcement has said, and you know probably it's true: ‘We just can't do this any more.  We don't have the time and we do not have the personnel or the resources to be able to handle those kinds of conditions of release. So, judge, please don't put that down as a condition of release.' And judges have basically ceded to that because we really didn't have a choice," Davenport says.

Lawmakers on the committee asked corrections officials why they don't rely more on electronic monitoring. The devices use GPS technology to track a person's movement. But officials said they don't have the money to monitor the equipment 24 hours a day.

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