In 2019, the The Justice Reinvestment II Working Group was convened. The members of the group included legislators, law enforcement, Department of Corrections officials, a Vermont Supreme Court justice, and advocacy groups. Their charge was to “… work with the Council of State Governments to conduct a review of programming, transitional services and population trends in Vermont’s correctional facilities. The review may include an evaluation of the women’s corrections population in Vermont and the programming and services to meet their needs, the detention population and barriers that exist to reducing the corrections population.”
The group made far-ranging recommendations to the legislature, and in 2020 the Act Relating to Justice Reinvestment was passed. Included was “earned good time,” in which the incarcerated person can earn time off their sentence for good behavior. This would apply to their minimum and maximum sentences. The benefit to the corrections system is a more cooperative populace, with the added bonus of contributing to the goal of reducing the overall prison population. Earned good time existed previously in Vermont until 2005, when it was discontinued. Currently, the incarcerated person can earn 7 days off their sentence for every month without disciplinary action.
It is worth noting here that good behavior in prison is not easy. The stress of living in close quarters with dozens of other people, having all your movements monitored and controlled is stressful for anyone. For people who are suffering from mental health and / or addiction, this challenge is greater. And release at their minimum is still dependent on being granted parole.
Enter (former) Attorney General TJ Donovan. He has been approached by the victims of a violent and high-profile crime, and they are unhappy with any sentence reduction for the offender, saying that they had a “good faith” promise from the state that the offender would do a specified amount of time behind bars. This prompts the AG, after the fact, to urge the legislature to rescind the earned good time benefit for people serving sentences for certain crimes. But, this applies only people that were incarcerated when the justice reinvestment bill was passed: in the future, people convicted of these crimes can earn good time. Political pressure was exerted, and the law, S.18, was quickly passed, undoing the work of many months by the Working Group.
The Prisoners’ Rights office filed a challenge to S.18. A completely inconclusive — and typical — hearing took place this last week. The DOC had filed to dismiss the case, and then the Petitioner’s attorney filed for Summary Judgement. This is applied when the parties do not contest the facts, they simply need a determination on the Rule Of Law. It’s like all your cards are face up on the table… you just need a decision. The result was that no determination was made, as the DOC requested 30 days to respond to the Petitioner’s (and Prisoners’ Rights) filing, after which PR has two weeks to respond to the response.
There are Ex Post Facto decisions to be considered, even though the State will argue irrelevence.
Read the recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment II Working Group here.
— Meg McCarthy