During a stint in the hot seat Wednesday afternoon, Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George blasted her opponent in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary, Ted Kenney, for connecting her progressive stance with an uptick in crime.
“The number of crimes that have gone up absolutely have to be addressed. But thinking that it's my policies rather than Covid and other … issues that are happening in our community uses me as a scapegoat,” George said at a candidate forum hosted by the Lake Champlain Chamber and other local business associations.
In front of roughly 75 audience members at the virtual event, George and Kenney each pitched their vision for how they would approach public safety as the county’s top prosecutor. But for George, who has held the office since 2017, the forum quickly became a defense of her track record.
By adopting reform-minded policies such as eliminating requests for cash bail, George has won acclaim and helped lead a national movement that aims to make prosecutors, not public defenders, the guardian angels of those going through the criminal justice system.
But along with the praise, George has faced criticism that she is partly responsible for the increase in crime over the past two years. By granting overly lenient conditions of release to people accused of a crime, critics contend, George has allowed people to repeatedly commit crimes.
Kenney, a Williston selectboard member who twice ran unsuccessfully for the state’s attorney office, has seized upon those concerns in his campaign, blazoning his website with the slogan: “Criminal justice reform and safe streets.”
“I believe in the people who are in the system, but I also believe that we need to focus on the people who are the victims of crime,” Kenney said at the forum.
In her defense, George pointed out that state’s attorneys cannot by themselves prevent crime; they can only prosecute those who law enforcement say have already acted wrongly. As an example, George said that her office never received referrals from police to prosecute people who allegedly assaulted nurses while receiving care at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
Furthermore, George said, her office has been constrained in its ability to argue low-level cases before a judge because of a pandemic-induced backlog of cases in the state’s judiciary.
George said the backlog has particularly hampered her ability to prosecute retail theft cases — a problem that has incensed business owners.
Beyond pursuing charges against alleged offenders, George said there is little her office can do to help businesses recover costs lost to shoplifting, because the state makes businesses whole based on what the offenders can pay.
George said she is unsure how to create a system where businesses always get restitution for their stolen products, but is “trying to figure that out.”
Throughout the forum, George commented on how challenging her position has been during the Covid-19 pandemic, and suggested that her opponent was not prepared to succeed her.
“Mr. Kenney has not been a lawyer in our court for years and things are very different, especially with Covid,” George said. “It's really a disservice to the community to give these solutions that aren't actually realistic.”
In addition to George’s positions on conditions of release and retail theft, Kenney and some participants grilled the incumbent about her policy on what she calls “non-public safety traffic stops.”
According to a policy instituted earlier this year, George’s office does not prosecute charges that arise after police pulled someone over for certain types of traffic violations, including driving an unregistered vehicle or a vehicle with an expired inspection.
While it does not prevent police from pulling drivers over for these violations, the policy’s stated aim is to eliminate these stops as a practice, arguing that they result in a disproportionate number of drivers of color getting pulled over.
Kenney blasted the policy as overly broad, comparing it to a doctor advising a patient who wants to lose 10 pounds to “cut part of your body off.”
In response, George said the policy might be drastic to white people such as herself and Kenney, but that it isn’t to some Black people, who worry about dying unjustly at the hands of police during traffic stops.
“Whether it's implicit or not, the bias is there. The data supports it,” George said. “And we need to find ways to limit the number of people of color being pulled over.”
Kenney said he shared George’s concern about the racial disparities evident in Vermont’s policing statistics, and agreed that those disparities stem from bias by law enforcement. But he argued that the pattern should be addressed through better law enforcement training instead of altering prosecution policies.
“It's like trying to get in shape. You can't just do 10 pushups and decide ‘OK, that's it, I’m in shape now,’” Kenney said. “The amount of training and focus and making sure that these numbers are coming down is going to have to be something that happens for repeated years.”
George and Kenney also agreed on some other issues. Both said the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, the state’s prison for women, should be torn down (Kenney said it could also be “substantially renovated”), and expressed an openness to “safe-injection” or “overdose prevention” sites, where people can consume illegal drugs under supervision so a medical professional can intervene in the case of an overdose.
But even within those issues, the two candidates diverged. George advocated for the women’s prison to be replaced by an “open, accessible community for women,” while Kenney signaled support for a more conventional facility. On the drug consumption sites, George underscored her advocacy in favor of the spaces while Kenney said he wanted state officials to study the issue.
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.