Over the past two years, state and local officials say, Vermont has seen a disturbing trend: young people committing increasingly violent and serious crimes in the state.
It’s not clear exactly whether this phenomenon — which officials said often involves out-of-state individuals linked to the drug trade — has impacted overall crime rates or public safety in Vermont.
But it presents state leaders with a particularly vexing challenge: At a time when lawmakers are seeking to relax penalties for justice-involved youth, what should the state do with young people accused or convicted of violent crime?
“It's not just my county, it’s every county,” Erica Marthage, the Bennington County State’s Attorney, told lawmakers Wednesday. “We’re all being exposed to this different level of violence in youth that we haven't seen before. We didn't plan for it, but it's here.”
Officials from Vermont’s Department of Corrections and the Department for Children and Families sketched out the problem in remarks Wednesday to the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee.
Young people involved in the justice system in Vermont can find themselves at the center of a web of overlapping trends, officials say.
On one hand is the state’s years-long push to move most cases involving juveniles to family court, an initiative intended to recognize the fact that young adults are still maturing.
Under Act 201, a 2018 law also referred to as the “Raise the Age” law, juveniles charged with crimes other than a list of serious offenses called the “Big 12” — which includes sexual assault, murder and kidnapping — are tried in family court.
But the state is now facing a dire shortage of places for those young people to go.
In 2019, Vermont had about 200 residential beds for youth — encompassing the state’s now-closed Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex, inpatient mental health beds and residential treatment centers.
Woodside closed in 2020, amid dwindling occupancy rates and allegations of excessive use of staff restraints.
Now, the state has only 97 beds, which are almost always full, according to Sean Brown, the commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families.
“The pandemic has really stressed our system, and where we see that is in the staffing shortages across our residential programs,” Brown said.
Many of those beds are not appropriate for youth involved in violent crimes. Officials are reluctant to house violent offenders with other juveniles involved with less serious crimes, and DCF employees are ill-equipped to care for them.
Since the closure of Woodside, “DCF Family Service workers are too often being forced to put themselves in extremely dangerous situations with these young Vermonters, some of whom are in mental health crisis and exhibiting violent and assaultive behavior,” Steve Howard, the executive director of the state employees’ union, said in January.
Vermont officials have attempted to send juvenile offenders to the Sununu Youth Services Center, in New Hampshire. But that facility — which is the subject of lawsuits and a criminal investigation over allegations of abuse — is scheduled to close next year.
The Sununu Center has also been too full to accept Vermont juveniles in the past. Amid the shortage of beds, officials have held some juveniles in adult jails.
That’s what happened earlier this year to a Bennington County 15-year-old girl, who, despite her age, was detained briefly at South Burlington’s Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.
This summer, officials told VTDigger that four minors have been housed in adult corrections facilities since 2020.
But on Wednesday, Vermont Department of Corrections Commissioner Nicholas Deml appeared to indicate that the figure might be higher.
“If a youth is charged with a felony in the state of Vermont, there are options to get them to go to the corrections system,” Deml told lawmakers. “We know that because we've done it nearly a dozen times this year.”
Spokespeople for the departments of Corrections and for Children and Families did not respond to a request for clarification Thursday.
Advocates say that adult jails are dangerous places for minors, and that juveniles that spend time in prison are more likely to commit crimes after their release.
And Deml said that the state’s correctional officers are also ill-equipped to care for juveniles.
“Corrections staff in the state of Vermont are not trained to handle youths,” Deml told lawmakers Wednesday. “They have no training on the differences between uses of force. They’re not trained on the mental, emotional, physical health states of youths, and how that differs from adults.”
The testimony drew alarm from lawmakers.
“What's been going on in Southern Vermont is spreading to Burlington, to Chittenden County, spreading to other areas of the state,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington. “I'm really fearful, not only for the safety of the public, but the safety of many of these kids who get involved in (this). So I really can't impress about how much concern I have for this.”
"This is an immediate need, now, today, and it's not going to go away,” said Rep. Charles Shaw, R-Rutland.
State officials have spent roughly $2 million over the past two years on salary increases and traveling health care workers to mitigate staffing shortages in youth residential facilities, according to Brown, the DCF commissioner.
And officials have worked with the Brattleboro Retreat, Washington County Mental Health Services, and the Windham County Sheriff’s Department to open up secure beds.
It’s unclear how many of those beds would be appropriate for violent juveniles.
Vermont officials have also planned for years to open a new six-bed youth detention center for teenage boys in Newbury. That project is currently on appeal before the state Environmental Court, and Brown said he hopes to receive a decision on that project “in the very near future.”
But the problem of low capacity has now dragged on for months, if not years, and lawmakers along with Marthage, the Bennington County state’s attorney, expressed frustration about the apparent lack of progress.
“I don't want to offend anybody, but I'm also really losing my patience with these kinds of issues,” Marthage told lawmakers. “Just come up with a couple of beds somewhere. And that may sound flip, but it's not flip when I'm the one taking phone calls — six (or) eight phone calls a night — trying to figure out where to put someone who is dangerous.”
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