Two facts about Vermont’s criminal justice system were made clear in the final weeks of 2019. First, our state’s justice system is far more dysfunctional, violent, and abusive than many Vermonters realized. And second, we have an opportunity, as well as a moral obligation, to subject far fewer people to that system than we currently do.

Prisons are the problem, and the solution is to create a system that is more humane and just — by investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration and smart justice reforms this year.

In early December, a window into the myriad harms our prison system inflicts on Vermonters was blown open by Seven Days’ Paul Heinz, who exposed longstanding allegations of rape and assault by correctional officers at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF), Vermont’s only women’s prison. Senior officials knew about the abuses and did not intervene, allowing them to continue for years.

A few days after that story broke, Vermont inmate Kenneth Johnson died in prison in Newport. Johnson was a black man in a state that incarcerates black men at one of the highest rates in the country. One witness reported that for hours before he died, Johnson struggled to breathe and pleaded for medical attention.

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