Week Two Legislative Update. Capital Bill and Corrections 101.

I have not yet determined if it will be feasible to provide an update every week. At this point in time, however, I’ve got the capacity to offer a summary following the second week of the legislative session. Before I provide that, allow me to alert you to the fact that the House and Senate Progressives have a press conference scheduled for this Tuesday, January 17th at noon. Following the press conference, we’ll be posting our platform for the new legislative biennium. I’ll certainly post links for locating that document once it has been made public.

Week two began the real work of getting all new committee members up to speed on the general concepts and previous legislation that is likely to have an impact on our committee work. Given the fact that both the House and Senate are experiencing the largest turnover of legislators in history, these overview sessions are critically important. My committee, the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, spent time learning about the 2022-23 Capital Bill as well as an overview of the Department of Corrections in anticipation of receiving the Governor’s proposed budget this Friday, January 20th. Jennifer Fitch, Commissioner for the Department of Buildings and General Services, along with Joe Aja, her Director for Design and Construction offered incredibly thorough presentations over the course of the week that outlined the history of the recent Capital Bill and some of the larger projects supported through those appropriations.

I urge you all to become familiar with the linked page that will take you to our committee landing spot. From there you have access to all meeting agendas as well as any documents we review. This will be especially useful should you wish to follow the anticipated topics surrounding the possibility of constructing a new women’s prison facility. This is likely to be an intensely debated topic that will likely impact the Capital Bill (the bill that dictates how the State can commit to any construction bonds) for years.

We also received an introductory presentation on the current status of the Department of Corrections. Commissioner Nicholas Deml facilitated the presentation and, although it was a very broad look at our current state of incarceration in Vermont, I’ve already realized that I’ll need to take a much deeper dive into some data that jumped out at me as alarming. Specifically, I was surprised and saddened to learn about the number of people we incarcerate that have not yet received any sentence. At the time of the presentation, 499 of our total 1346 incarcerated population are considered detainees. An astounding 50% of our 107 incarcerated women are currently detained without a sentence. This compares to approximately 36% of our incarcerated men. Additionally, many of these people currently detained without a sentence are likely to have been incarcerated for issues adjacent to a substance use disorder.

During the presentation, I encouraged our Commissioner to become more deliberate about how they survey for gender identity. You’ll note from the slide that the current data is not at all recognizing of a broader continuum of gender identity and groups people into an “other” category that only serves to reinforce an antiquated and restrictive gender binary. I also asked for more data pertaining to the racial demographics of our incarcerated population. That information was only briefly discussed during the overview. I have since received that additional data and will be evaluating them over the coming weeks. You can find the full set of slides used during the presentation by navigating to the Documents and Handouts section of the Committee landing page and then searching the “Other Documents” tab. It will be absolutely critical for us to consider the many ways we detain people that may not necessarily need to be incarcerated. These will be important questions as various advocates for building a new prison enter the conversation. Currently, the proposed construction estimates for such a facility would increase the total number of beds, may not necessarily add to any step-down options for people who are low-risk or approaching the end of their sentence, and may cost as much as 500 million dollars to construct. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and concerns as I represent you in the room where these conversations will continue.

I anticipate that my first bill will be introduced to the floor very soon. I am finalizing the process by which I gather co-sponsors and do not have a clear understanding of the timeline between the completion of that step and the point at which it becomes formally introduced. That bill, in general, will seek to protect our k-12 public educators from outside influence from far-right activist groups that seek to restrict curricula on matters pertaining to social justice. I am also in the initial stages of working with other Representatives from Burlington to introduce legislation that seeks to hold UVM accountable to building solutions for the housing and rental crisis in our city. I’ll have more details for you as they develop.