Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy, D-VT A Conversation on Criminal Justice Reform: New Approaches for Vermont and the Nation

Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us today for this important conversation. I am proud to welcome my friend Senator Booker here to discuss criminal justice reform and to hear about what is working right here in Vermont. Thanks also to our panelists and guests. Many of you labor every day to strengthen our communities, lessen our reliance on jails, and support those who are reentering society.

Criminal justice reform is not a new conversation in Vermont. We are marking the 20th anniversary of adopting a restorative justice model here.  Our community justice centers combine intensive support services around employment, housing, and mentoring. They increase public safety by forging partnerships between community members, the judiciary, and the Department of Corrections. We will hear more about their work shortly.

With help from federal Second Chance Act funding, the Vermont Department of Corrections has done tremendous work to reduce recidivism. Success stories like yours are why I am working hard to see that legislation reauthorized. We must do more to support reentry programs and we must devote the resources that are needed, rather than pay lip service.

We have an over-incarceration problem in this country.  For decades, whenever politicians – including those of us in Congress – encountered a public safety crisis, the answer was the same: add another mandatory minimum sentence.  This resulted in the exponential growth of our prison population. Yet there was a human cost.  Far too many offenders were sent to prison for far longer than common sense or public safety required.  And, as everyone in this room knows, there is also a fiscal cost.  Our public safety budgets are finite.  Every dollar spent on unnecessary incarceration means one less dollar for law enforcement, prosecutors, and support for criminal justice programs that actually work.  

Congress is often slow to fix its mistakes.  But we are starting to make progress here.  Just last week we took a significant step forward on the bipartisan sentencing reform bill that will actually reduce some of our most draconian mandatory minimums. It has taken a long time and this bill is just a step – and a modest one at that – but it is a beginning.  I want to see an end to all federal mandatory minimums, which are unjust and do not make us safer. 

Of course, the best approach to reducing our reliance on prisons is to prevent those at risk from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.  We need to invest in our youth.  Programs such as the Boys and Girls Club of Burlington and the King Street Center are wonderful examples of how such investments create places where young people can learn and thrive.

The heroin epidemic has brought many new challenges to Vermont.  But we understand that addiction is a public health crisis, and we must treat it like one.  We cannot incarcerate addiction out of people.  Only a commitment to prevention, treatment, and recovery programs will allow us to get ahead of addiction.  Today we will hear about how programs such as the Rapid Intervention Community Court provide alternative, common-sense approaches that not only save taxpayers’ money, they save lives.

As some of you know, Senator Booker wrote the book – literally – on criminal justice reform. Published just a few months ago, “United” – and I am shortening the title here – draws on his experiences as Mayor of Newark. He witnessed the effects of “Incarceration Nation,” noting that between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened every ten days in our country.  This means much-needed resources that could fix crumbling bridges and roads are diverted instead to prisons. He also saw the consequences of thousands of poor people going to jail or pleading guilty to crimes after hardly talking to a lawyer, because their public defenders were overwhelmed.   

Cory Booker throws himself – completely – into everything he does. On Capitol Hill he is a marvel to behold.  He is unstoppable.  He is also a strong believer that we must do better, as am I.  It has been a great pleasure, as well as a productive project, to work with him to move meaningful criminal justice reform forward in the Senate.  We are working to make our sentencing system more fair and to make real the constitution’s guarantee of competent counsel at trial. We are working to improve prison conditions, as well as the reentry process after people go back to their communities and families.  I’m delighted to have him here with us today.

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