Listening to Vermont Public a few weeks ago, near the beginning of the 2023 legislative session, I heard a brief interview with Chittenden County Senator Ginny Lyons. Ms. Lyons was drafting a child care bill that would make child care as accessible as elementary school. Child care and early education advocates will mount a serious campaign in the coming months to ensure that no Vermont family spends more than 10% of its annual income on child care costs.

Vermont Public went on to say, “Many lawmakers and advocates will be calling for substantial investments in not just housing and child care, but also universal school meals, paid family and medical leave, and health care. The deluge of federal money that supported record-high budgets over the past two years, however, will soon begin to dry up. And lawmakers and the governor will have to decide whether, and how, to address the many funding requests they’ll receive this year.”

In 2022, the Vermont Department of Correction’s budget was $168,000,000. That’s right, $168M. What do we Vermonters get as a return on that investment? The prison system is an anachronism. It does not make our communities safer. It does not rehabilitate people: for all the rhetoric claiming it does, its main purpose is punishment and control. In an effort to make a system that is intrinsically inhumane into a humane one, the state must spend millions on inadequate health care for the incarcerated. People who are no threat to our communities are imprisoned for years, even decades. The myth that the threat of incarceration is a deterrent to crime has been disproven time and time again. Yet our state continues to behave as if it were.

The Vermont Senate’s Judiciary committee will take up a bill this session, S.58, “An act relating to increasing the penalties for subsequent offenses for trafficking and dispensing or sale of a regulated drug with death resulting.” On the face of it this might seem to make sense; we are talking about playing a role in someone’s death. However, the state on one hand tells us that addiction is a disease, but most people who sell drugs are addicts themselves. And again, increasing the penalty will not deter them, nor is additional time in prison likely to rehabilitate them. In fact, prison is often referred to as “crime school.” The more time you spend in this school, the more you’ll learn to be a better criminal.

Adverse Childhood Experience

Having an incarcerated parent is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Go to any Vermont prison on visiting day, and you’ll see moms, dads, and kids trying to maintain family connections in the face of painful separations. These children have not only lost the presence of a parent in the home, but they are most likely subjected to increased poverty, having lost a parent’s income.

An estimated 6,000 Vermont kids experience parental incarceration. In Vermont, one child in every 17 has had a mom or dad in prison. This is marginally better than the U.S. average (1 in 14), although New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and California have rates of parental incarceration that are less than ours.* We know these 6,000 children are experiencing ACEs at a very high rate. They are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, cognitive delay, delinquency, school failure, substance abuse, poor health outcomes, and eventual incarceration themselves.

Which brings us back to the funds needed for child care, health care, school meals, and housing. Perhaps if we incarcerated fewer people for less time, we can take a chunk of that $168M and invest it in our communities. And maybe we can focus on working with justice-involved people to become assets to their community and their families, and not just another number in prison.

— Meg McCarthy

Research on children of incarcerated parents

Info on chlidren of incarcerated Vermonters

* These numbers are circa 2018: I was unable to find more current statistics.

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Vermont Just Justice is an all-volunteer organization. Help us continue to support Vermont’s incarcerated people and change our state’s criminal legal system.