By Senator Alice Nitka, Windsor County, January 21, 2011
In 1978, the Vermont Legislature decriminalized public intoxication under the “Alcohol Services Act”. There was a goal of getting more public inebriates as these persons are known into treatment rather than jail. In 1977, the year before the legislation, 550 persons were jailed after being charged with public intoxication. Some of you may recall the “Andy Griffith Show”, whereby the local drunk came and stayed in the local jail, with the door unlocked until he sobered up. This is similar to what was going on in VT at the time, although I don’t know about the unlocked door. Many towns had their own lock ups and housed these persons until they were able to function and then sent them on their way. Some towns and cities still have a local lock up for short term use but generally they are no longer available and have become storage areas. The issue of needing to house public inebriates who do not have a place to go to when drunk or under the influence of other substances has not gone away. It is an expensive problem weighing on the Corrections Dept. budget as well as on local police department budgets.
In 2010, there were 1,617 lodgings around the state for an average of 134 per month. These were persons who needed supervision as they were incapacitated and had no one to take them home or look out for them. Another 1,700 were in similar condition but had a relative, friend or a responsible person who could step forward and keep them from being sent to a public shelter or detox bed. As there are not enough local services or beds in the state for the persons who need a secure setting, they wind up being housed in our prisons where they are kept separate from the regular prison population and are monitored. They are not charged with a crime and do not have a criminal record because of this. Some are in need of hospitalization so all need to be screened before they can be placed which requires supervision while they are being screened as well as transport to the site for screening which is most often a hospital emergency room. The full cost of care for these individuals can run from $1000 to $3000 dollars depending upon what is needed.
A person can be held for up to 24 hours or until judged by the facility personnel to no longer be incapacitated. Many times they are now in a correctional facility a county away from where they live and have no way to get home and are frequently without money, sometimes don’t have appropriate clothing for the weather and in one case I know of were without their shoes. Some of these individuals are homeless with no place to go. A majority of persons enter the public inebriate program only one time. Chittenden County had highest number of public inebriates last year and many are young adults, sometimes very inexperienced drinkers. Others are the repeaters who churn through the system many times. For many of the repeaters their operating blood alcohol level is 1.5 and they don’t get themselves into trouble until it is around 3.0.
There is work being done to try to get a better handle on these problems and to reduce the Dept. of Corrections costs as well as communities’ costs.
School groups are starting to visit the State House and today Governor Douglas visited with his Middlebury College students. Consider visiting as tours can be arranged or you can tour by yourself with a handheld audio device. I can be reached at home at 228-8432 or at email@example.com or P.O. Box 136, Ludlow, VT 05149 You can find schedules and bills at www.leg.state.vt.us.