Public Safety

Sorrell puts spotlight on incarceration

[W]HITE RIVER JUNCTION -- A public hearing here Monday took on the tone of a civics classroom as members of the public, professionals in criminal justice, and state officials discussed crime, punishment and the social compact.

An audience of more than two dozen showed up for the meeting, some standing at the back when the seats filled up.

The event, hosted by Attorney General William Sorrell, put the spotlight on incarceration, particularly lengthy sentences, and posed the question: Should Vermont rely on prison time as much as it does?

Vermont AG William Sorrell, right, said his office lacked the evidence needed to bring criminal charges against Vermont Yankee Officials. VTD/Josh Larkin

Vermont AG William Sorrell. VTD/Josh Larkin

The forum was the first of three to be held in venues around the state to gauge public opinion on incarceration. The next hearing will take place in Rutland today. The last one will be held in Burlington on Monday.

The panel, which Monday included Agency of Human Services Secretary Hal Cohen, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark and others, is getting public feedback on a recommendation that the Legislature adopt a resolution to steer Vermont's criminal justice system away from incarceration.

The resolution would signify a shift in the way the state handles punishment for criminal behavior, Sorrell said.

“It would be like moving a battleship through thousands of individual decisions by prosecutors and judges, and in no small part on the decisions by corrections personnel on when the individual is released,” Sorrell told VTDigger Tuesday.

Monday’s attendees were in favor of a change in the way the state handles imprisonment.

“Yes. Do it. Proceed. Look hard at how we make our choices about incarceration,” Dan Deneen, of Sharon, said. “It seems broken. Let’s fix it.”

Deneen introduced himself as “just a guy” who had taken an interest in the corrections system and criminal justice.

Douglas Johnston, chief of the Springfield Police Department, said that communities struggle when there are not sufficient resources to support the sometimes complex needs of offenders reentering the community. That burden sometimes falls to law enforcement, he said.

Many raised concerns about the state’s out-of-state prison program and the practice of using private prisons to manage the overflow from Vermont’s prison system. Others spoke about the difficulties of reintegrating into the community, pointing to the difficulty in finding affordable housing.

Keith Flynn, commissioner of public safety, one of seven panelists hearing, said that he sees the issue as “systemic.”

“It’s time to take a look at everything,” Flynn said.

Meg McCarthy drove more than an hour from her home in Marlboro to attend the forum. McCarthy, whose relative is imprisoned, spoke of the toll that incarceration takes on families — the emotional drain, the time it takes to visit, the financial hit on the family.

After the meeting, McCarthy said that she was “pleased” with statements she heard from many of the panelists. She encouraged Vermonters to “think about incarcerated people as members of the community.”

While no participants expressed strong opposition to deemphasizing incarceration as the primary method of curbing crime, several asked the panel to ensure that any changes take into account the needs of victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Justina Kenyon, who works at Safeline, a domestic and sexual violence agency in Chelsea, urged panelists to bear the safety of victims in mind.

“We already struggle in the work that I do with so many people being incarcerated and then coming out a reoffending,” Kenyon said. “We’re working with their victims over and over again.”

Judy Rex of the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services, a member of the panel, said that she would like to see social workers manage offenders.

Her comment resonated with Seth Osgood who is currently on parole after serving time in prison. He lives at Dismas House, a residence in Hartford that supports people who are transitioning from prison life back into the community.

Osgood said he believes education is the key to reforming inmates, and he criticized the “tough love” approach of the criminal justice system.

“For me, having a conversation about correcting corrections without talking about any sort of education is crazy,” Osgood said. “If people are going to get out to dead end, no-future jobs then what chance do they have, what’s the deterrent?”

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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