Crime and Justice

Burlington criminal justice leaders urge reform in response to repeat offenders

Acting Chief of Police Jon Murad speaks at a press conference on May 24. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

When a Vermont man was most recently arrested by Burlington police on Aug. 12, the apprehension marked the end of a vandalism spree across the state. 

He kicked off the summer by smashing the windshields of six Burlington police cars with a rock. During that May 17 incident, according to a Burlington Police Department press release, he was confronted by officers at gunpoint. Rock in hand, he asked them: "Are you going to let them torture me? Let the FBI kill me?" 

The comments made it clear to officers that the man needed mental health services. A judge requested that police contact the Howard Center’s mental health team First Call, but they weren’t available to help, according to police. So, he was released.

He allegedly vandalized more Burlington cars five days later and spit into an officer’s eyes when apprehended, according to police. He allegedly went on to vandalize 30 more cars in Rutland, 50 in Middlebury, 25 in Vergennes and eight in Bristol. 

When the saga came to an end in August, the Burlington police and the Chittenden County State's Attorney office contacted the Department of Mental Health to get the man help. But the department said it wouldn’t hospitalize him, according to the BPD. 

The response prompted Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George to make a rare, public challenge to the agency’s ruling: 

“[The man’s] circumstances are yet another example of our mental health system refusing to exercise its statutory authority and instead relying on police and prosecutors to provide mental health services to individuals in great need,” George said in a statement included in a BPD press release. 

“Until the Department of Mental Health fills the void, the criminal legal system will continue to try, and will continue to fail,” she added. “These people need significant services, not jail.”

As Burlington is beginning to reevaluate its public safety system, George and others involved in Chittenden County’s criminal justice system are calling for change in the way the city of Burlington, and the state, help those who are habitual reoffenders in the criminal justice system. 

Some say there are specific reforms needed in both the Department of Mental Health and criminal statutes in order to safeguard the public and ensure reoffenders receive the interventions they need. Others say moving away from punitive punishments is the answer, and that the city of Burlington should lean more into restorative justice.

Last summer, the City Council elected to cut the police department’s staff by 30% through attrition to reinvest money into racial justice initiatives. But officers have left the department faster than expected, a trend that has raised concern in the community. A new internal police assessment from firm CNA Consulting was released Friday, and recommends considerable reforms to Burlington’s public safety systems. 

Overall crime is not rising in the city, nor is the frequency of reoffending cases. Mental health-related police issues, however, are rising in the city. Because these cases take up so much officer time, some say that finding a way to break these cycles could help the Burlington Police Department better align itself with a new public safety vision. 

“We too often think jail is the answer,” George said. “We spend a lot of money to house somebody in a jail, that actually increases their likelihood to recidivate when they're released, rather than just working on meeting their basic needs in the community.”

Frustration builds around reoffender cases 

This summer, Burlington officers responded to a string of cases involving reoffenders. 

On July 14, Burlington police arrested a man for attacking another on Church and Pearl Street. The attacker has had 165 interactions with the police dating back to 2013, according to BPD. 

The day before on July 13, police arrested another man who attacked someone with a hammer. The man began harassing a woman after she asked him to leave the area behind a downtown business. The woman got into her car to get away from him, but the man began banging on her windows and kicking the vehicle. When a bystander intervened, that's when the man attacked them with a hammer. 

Since January 2021, the attacker has had 30 interactions with the Burlington police, according to the BPD.

Most recently, a man with 54 prior police interactions dating back to January 2021 attempted to assault and threatened to stab a construction flagger on Flynn Avenue Sept. 1. He fled the scene and according to a BPD press release, “Officers did not pursue [the man] due to his unpredictable violent history.”

He has 11 felony charges and 11 misdemeanor charges on his criminal record. There are currently four open court cases against him. Earlier this summer, he beat someone in Battery Park until they were almost unconscious, in a case that has been labeled a hate crime. 

The case was picked up by the left-leaning, independent outlet The Young Turks. The hosts called the Burlington Police cowardly for letting the man go because he was too dangerous. 

“Get him off the streets. What are you doing!” host John Iadarola said after reading off the man’s long rap sheet. “Who else is allowed to do one of these things, let alone over and over and over again? This is like a character from a bad TV show.” 

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a case of white privilege this extreme,” Young Turks Founder Cenk Uygur chimed in. He wondered why this man, who is white, is able to commit so many crimes and seemingly get away with it while Black men are often brutalized by police for minor or no offenses at all. 

Burlington Police data has shown that Black people are more often stopped by police and they more often experience use of force at the hands of Burlington cops. 

Burlington’s Acting Chief of Police Jon Murad said his officers did not pursue the man because doing so in the dense city of Burlington would have been too dangerous. He said his officers were confident they could find the man because they’ve arrested him before, repeatedly. 

“We arrested him safely in a way that didn't cause him to drive at a high rate of speed down the Beltline and plow into a minivan with a family and three kids coming in the other direction,” Murad said. 

“And the notion that this was based on his race is odious,” Murad said. 

Is jail time the best intervention? 

State’s Attorney George said the main reason why these men were out in the community despite their criminal records is because the crimes they previously committed did not warrant jail without bail. The crimes were misdemeanors, she said, and under Vermont statute only felony crimes allow someone to be held without bail. 

George had announced last fall that her office would no longer request cash bail in pretrial cases. She said at the time that it’s not fair that wealthier people get to walk free while others who can’t afford bail have to sit in a cell and potentially lose a job or their ability to take care of family. 

Under Vermont law, bail is used to keep someone from fleeing the state to avoid accountability in the court system. Bail is not used to keep violent offenders behind bars. 

George also told VTDigger that she doesn’t think jail is the proper intervention for people who are continually caught up in the criminal justice system. 

“Jail makes people more prone to violence,” she said. “People who commit violence typically do so because of an inability to meet their needs and often because of their own exposure to violence.” 

“And then we think that the best answer for that is to put those people in a facility that will expose them to violence,” she added, “and will take them away from any basic needs that they might have had in the community.” 

She said Chittenden County does not have enough mental health and substance abuse resources available to get people the help they need before they reoffend. These resources, she said, are key to helping people break their recidivism cycles. 

Sarah George
Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

George said she frequently runs into conflict with the Department of Mental Health when she thinks an offender who comes into her jurisdiction needs mental health help, not jail. Through the court, offenders can be put on orders of non-hospitalization in the DMH’s custody if there is evidence that they need mental health services. They would be receiving these services while out in the community. 

But George says she is frequently told by the department that they cannot involuntarily commit people because their illness is not severe enough, or the department doesn’t think that the crimes the person is committing is tied to their mental illness. And if the person themselves does not want to receive mental health services, there’s no way to force them into care, George said.

George thinks there are instances where the DMH is not doing enough to make interventions. She said she made the statement about the serial vandalizer earlier this summer — the man who told police the FBI was after him as he was bashing in cruiser windshields — because the department ruled he was not someone it could commit involuntarily before reading the affidavits demonstrating his lack of sanity.

George thinks the department is able to avoid accountability on cases like this by hiding behind HIPAA — the federal law that protects the privacy of medical information. The DMH said it could not comment to VTDigger on why the serial vandalizer could not receive mental health care because of HIPAA protections. 

Last week, George said she forced a court hearing with the DMH on the case of one woman who has racked up “countless” charges. Most recently, she stabbed someone. The woman is frequently found not competent by the court, George said, but the DMH doesn’t want to involuntarily commit her because they say she doesn’t meet their strict guidelines for forced hospitalization. 

Karen Barber, general counsel for the Department of Mental Health, told VTDigger that Vermont is one of the only states in the country that does not have a “forensic” mental health system solely dedicated to providing services for those who are accused of crimes. Currently, Vermont has a “civil” mental health system of care, which overlaps with the criminal legal system but is not solely dedicated to criminal cases.

“The Legislature has made very clear that Vermont values personal autonomy,” Barber said. “So the legal and clinical thresholds to involuntarily hospitalize someone are really high and there are very strict statutory criteria.” 

“When you involuntarily hospitalize somebody,” she added, “you’re essentially taking away all of their civil rights. So it's a high bar because of that.” 

She said she understands that it can be frustrating to see someone who is on an order of non-hospitalization who is supposed to be receiving medication or therapy but rejects those opportunities. Because Vermont operates within a non-coercive model of care, Barber said, that’s the way the system works. 

“We agree that the systems do not fit together,” Barber said. “But right now, that is the system that we have.” 

Barber noted that the Vermont Legislature created a working group last session to study the possibility of a forensic model in Vermont through bill S.3, a model that could give the court system more power to apply mental health services to those in need. The piece of legislation also notifies a victim of a crime if their perpetrator is set free in a case where they were found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.

Barber said the department would welcome a discussion with George about her concerns. She said she thinks the department is held accountable — there are multiple systems of due process in place, Barber said, such as the court system and advocates from disability rights groups. 

Phil Baruth
Phil Baruth on Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, is vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee where S.3 originated. The debate over whether the state should make it easier to involuntarily commit people has persisted in the Legislature for years, he said.

He said there are some people who say that Vermont has a “very weak” system to commit people for care. 

“But then you hear testimony from people who will tell you that they were involuntarily medicated, they did not consider themselves to have a mental issue, their family didn't, their neighbors didn't,” Baruth said. “And yet they find themselves medicated and confined.” 

And then there’s the issue that mental health services overall are chronically underfunded, he said, in a state that has a relatively small general fund budget. Baruth thinks the best course of action is what S.3 set in motion — a study that will explore if and how Vermont could change its mental health systems. That report is due back to the Legislature by August 2022. 

Criminal statute reform

Acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad thinks Vermont’s strict mental health care philosophy extends into the state’s criminal statutes too. 

“It is incredibly hard to get sent to jail in Vermont,” Murad said. “And it's even harder to get sent to prison.” 

He said he thinks this philosophy is defined in large part by rule three in Vermont’s Rules of Criminal Procedure. The statute dictates when officers can arrest people depending on the type of crime committed, either a felony or misdemeanor. 

What makes Vermont unique, Murad said, is the part of the statute that says officers cannot arrest people for misdemeanor crimes that are not directly witnessed by the officer, even if other witnesses saw the crime. Officers can only cite the person to appear in court. 

The majority of Burlington’s crimes are misdemeanors, Murad said. For example, when someone reports that a petit larceny occurred and they give an exact description of who the perpetrator is, officers cannot make an arrest.

The statute makes exceptions. Officers can make an arrest if the person is expected to reoffend or if the person has committed specific misdemeanor crimes, such as simple assault or stalking. But overall, Murad said he thinks this rule can make it difficult for officers to make a proper intervention to prevent further harm. 

“Rule three is dedicated to the notion that we as a state do not want to take people into custody,” Murad said. 

“We do not want to trammel people's freedoms,” he added. “And that's a righteous, correct thing to believe in a country that is predicated on freedom. It runs up against problems when we have individuals whose behavior affects other peoples’ freedom.” 

He doesn’t think Vermont’s statutes should be rewritten to make it easier to put habitual reoffenders in jail because these are often extreme cases that shouldn’t dictate the state’s general rules. “We need greater ability to hold people for the sake of public safety,” Murad said.

He thinks the state should widen its statute on holding people without bail to include crimes that cause harm and takes into account the likelihood of recidivism. Currently, someone can only be held without bail if they have committed a felony in Vermont. 

Some in the city are pushing the criminal justice system to move away from traditional punitive policing as a crime deterrent, such as jail time. When VTDigger asked Murad if he supports any alternative justice interventions beyond holding somebody in jail, he said, “How is that working out?”

When asked to clarify, Murad said, “I gave you the quote, how is that working out?” 

He followed up with VTDigger in an email to clarify that he does support alternative justice measures. He said the department has “drastically increased” case referrals to alternative justice resources like the Burlington Community Justice Center. 

An alternative, holistic approach to crime 

Rachel Jolly leads the Community Justice Center, which operates within the city’s Community and Economic Development Office. The mission of the center is to address the root causes of crime, “so that everybody experiences dignity, safety and justice in the communities we serve,” Jolly said. 

Rachel Jolly. Photo courtesy of the Burlington Community Justice Center

She said the center does this through preventative work, identifying those in the community who need extra support before they fall into the criminal justice system. The center also engages in restorative work. If someone commits a crime, the center will work through the incident with the victim and the perpetrator to restore some trust. 

For instance, the center worked with someone identified as “SE,” a minor whose case was diverted from court and instead referred to the Community Justice Center. The youth had damaged property that affected more than 40 people. The center requested impact letters from the victims which the youth read. They also met with one of the victims in person.

SE wrote an apology letter to the victim they met and a public apology to the community they affected. The center also helped them journal and reflect on their actions. As a result, SE has been engaging more with a counselor and now regularly stays in touch with justice center staff about their personal goals and friendships in the community.

In another case, the center helped someone who had caused damage to a local business while struggling with addiction. The center helped the business owner obtain financial restitution and the person was able to reflect with the owner about how their actions impacted their business. The center was able to support the person in their recovery efforts and they were able to enter treatment. 

Jolly said she thinks the city should focus more on what is causing crime to then figure out how to prevent it. In her experience at the Community Justice Center, which takes on about 2,000 cases a year, she sees people in the community committing crimes because they don’t have access to the basic services they need to be healthy and happy individuals, such as housing, food and health care. 

The pandemic has shone a light on how poverty, trauma and systemic discrimination can cause people to get caught in the criminal justice system, she said.

“We're trying to look more holistically at motivations behind crime,” Jolly said. “When we look to get more information, rather than less, and move more upstream to look at how we can look at an issue systemically, that's where I am given hope.”

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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