Rural America

Vermont is finding a way to deliver.

You could be forgiven for looking at Vermont’s heroin crisis—the surging addiction rates, the climbing death tolls, the related crime—and feeling like you’ve read this book before. After all, rural states across the country are going through the exact same thing. Centers for Disease Control data shows that drug overdose death rates, up nationwide, are particularly high in the most rural parts of the country. Resources for mental illness and substance abuse are limited, and many people who struggle with those issues end up in the criminal justice system.

“It was the perfect storm,” Governor Peter Shumlin said. “Rising addiction, rising prison population, lack of money to keep doing what we were doing, and a real sense of social injustice being served to people who were suffering from a disease that led to petty crime.”

Vermont is writing a new chapter, though, with a series of policy responses that have helped lower incarceration rates by keeping addicts in treatment and out of prison. While the shift in policy and attitude began with the previous administration, Shumlin made criminal justice reform a key part of his successful 2010 campaign for governor and has carried the initiative through his second and third terms, dedicating his entire 2014 State of the State address to opiate abuse.

“We must bolster our current approach to addiction with more common sense,” he said at the time. “We must address it as a public health crisis, providing treatment and support, rather than simply doling out punishment, claiming victory, and moving on to our next conviction.”

Now, if you get arrested on a nonviolent charge in Vermont, there’s a good chance you’ll never do time behind bars. You might end up in addiction treatment, or with your case on a special drug treatment docket. Circumstances depending, you might not even end up with a charge on your record. Three Vermont counties have drug courts, one has a mental health court, and another has a DUI court. The treatment dockets are part of a mosaic of initiatives that reroute defendants away from prison and into appropriate treatment for mental health and substance abuse treatment.

These treatment courts reach people when they are already much of the way through the judicial system. Participants in drug court are often charged with drug-related offenses or drug-motivated ones, like theft. The court is specifically for high-risk, high-need individuals, who face the possibility of prison time if they fail out of the program.

At fortnightly meetings, attended by attorneys, social workers, probation officers, a state trooper, and others, the judge checks in, one by one, with each enrollee in the program. If they make it to their regular urinalysis screenings, group meetings, and therapy sessions, they progress through the program. If they fail to comply, they face sanctions. If they fail too many times, their case goes back to the criminal docket and they go to prison to serve their underlying sentence.

Unlike in drug treatment court, defendants on Vermont’s DUI docket, which began in January 2014, do not avoid a conviction or sentence. The goal is to resolve the underlying issues that have led a person to multiple impaired-driving charges. Typically the program takes between eighteen and twenty-four months to complete.

Governor Peter Shumlin made criminal justice reform a key part of his successful 2010 campaign for governor and has carried the initiative through his second and third terms, dedicating his entire 2014 State of the State address to opiate abuse.

Vermont is still in the process of building out the services that will intercept and divert people in the stages between arrest and conviction. Under the pretrial services program, passed by the legislature in 2014 and rolled out in 2015, every county offers an assessment that calculates an individual’s risk factor and indicates what types of services they might need. Anyone cited or arrested has the option to go through a seven-question screening designed to flag potential mental health or substance abuse issues before arraignment.

The program is designed to give the prosecutor and judge more information about an individual before making decisions. The person facing charges may be referred to treatment before even stepping into the courtroom. Depending on the case, the prosecutor, and the individual’s success in treatment, he or she may never be formally charged with a crime.

Shumlin and other policymakers are seeing results. Between 1997 and 2008, the number of people incarcerated in Vermont’s correctional system grew by 86 percent, according to the Council of State Governments. Given that trend, the council predicted that there would be 2,619 people incarcerated by mid-2015. After years of reforms, that number came in at 1,734.

Several other rural states are implementing similar programs to try to divert nonviolent defendants away from the correctional system. The programs attempt to relieve taxed criminal dockets and maximize exhausted treatment services, while curbing the recidivism associated with addiction and mental illness.

In Kentucky, defendants charged with nonviolent offenses have the option of participating in a diversion program. Under the guidance of a program officer, and with approval of the district judge, defendants are referred to appropriate treatment, therapeutic counseling, and other services. Depending on their success in the program, their charges may be dismissed.

Mike Thompson, director of the Council of State Government’s Justice Center, said that Vermont’s statewide adoption of risk and need assessments is a significant step. “That’s very important, because you don’t want judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors making decisions about the kind of program to put somebody in without the benefit of that criminogenic risk assessment,” Thompson said.

However, Thompson said, while there have been small gains from various promising initiatives, Vermont lacks a comprehensive system—and, with it, lacks data tracking how well the programs actually function. That’s a problem across the country, he said. And without more coordinated efforts to collect and gather the data demonstrating how effective various initiatives actually are at curbing the prevalence of mental illness in prisons, “we’re going to have the same kind of hodgepodge of stories for the next ten years,” Thompson said.

Amid the many efforts to manage available treatment and court resources, scarcity of services in rural areas remains a significant challenge in efforts to curb opiate addiction and related crimes. It’s a shortage Governor Shumlin readily admits is one of the biggest weaknesses of Vermont’s system. Wait lists for addiction services through Vermont’s system number in the hundreds, and wait times can be weeks. “The demand is higher than what we’ve built out,” Shumlin said.

Bobby Sand, a faculty member at Vermont Law School and Shumlin’s criminal justice liaison, was a key driver of the statewide risk-need assessment system. The various diversion initiatives are promising, he said, but the criminal justice system as a whole is still lacking. “The biggest thing that we’re missing in Vermont is a road map,” Sand said, “an agreed-upon vision for how we collectively address substance abuse and mental health programs.”

One issue, he said, is lack of support at the federal level. Greater investment in programs like treatment courts would be helpful. There’s also a need for more experts and resources in mental health and substance abuse treatment services; the federal government could help with that, Sand said, by setting up a program to incentivize the field, similar to the Title IV-E program that encouraged more people to go into social work.

In the meantime, Sand said he believes that Vermont has been a leader in one key way: recognizing that substance abuse and mental health issues are best served by treatment, not by prison. “I think the biggest thing we’re doing right is recognizing that a heavily based criminal justice response to people who present with a mental health or substance abuse issue is not only not effective but probably counterproductive,” he said.

Elizabeth Hewitt

Elizabeth Hewitt is the courts and corrections reporter for VTDigger.org, an online news organization in Montpelier, Vermont.