Vermont Experiments To Make Justice System Work Better
By Jeffrey Good, Special to Stateline
MONTPELIER, Vt. - On any morning, nearly half the 2,500 criminals serving time in Vermont wake up not in prison cells, but in their own homes. Although Vermont has one of the nation's lowest crime rates, it still produces enough criminals to badly overload the Green Mountain State's tiny prison system. To help ease crowding and increase the chances that offenders will return to productive lives the state has sent a growing number of convicts to live in neighborhoods under programs that range from traditional house arrest to an innovative technique called "reparative probation."
The results have been mixed. The state has won praise from Attorney General Janet Reno and others for its reparative probation program, which allows community boards to set terms of probation for people convicted of less serious crimes such as shoplifting.
There are more than 40 such boards statewide. Judy Bowers is a South Burlington resident and mother of 3 who serves on one.
Bowers sees the program as a chance for offenders to make amends to the people they've wronged, and for community members to do their share in creating a more law-abiding society.
"It is an incredibly wonderful process," she says. "It allows the dialogue to be opened between the offender and the community."
Public reaction has not always been as positive to the state's furlough program, which releases offenders convicted of more serious crimes ranging from drunken driving to domestic abuse and other violent assaults to live under house arrest.
While Corrections Department officials tripled the number of offenders in that program in recent years, they did so quietly. Citing a concern for the criminals' privacy, they refused to tell Vermonters the names, addresses and criminal histories of people being housed in private homes and state-rented apartments in their neighborhoods.
Nor did they keep a central record of how many of those offenders were committing new crimes.
Using information from other public records, the Burlington Free Press found that 44 percent of the offenders furloughed in the Burlington area during a 6-month period had been charged with new crimes. Nearly nine out of 10 were still under state supervision when charged.
Responding to public anxieties, Gov. Howard Dean ordered more street level supervision for furloughed offenders. And his administration recently proposed to dramatically increase public information and participation.
Under the proposal, a new network of community boards would be created to help decide who gets released on furlough, and how much neighbors can learn about them.
"In a healthy community, people know each other," said state Corrections Commissioner John Gorczyk. "Safe communities, quality of life, is everybody's job."
Some of the people who complained about the secrecy welcomed the idea.
"We really do need something like this," said Cherry Clark, a Burlington resident whose neighborhood is home to a heavy concentration of ex-convicts. "What makes people angry ... (is) they don't know that this person is on furlough and they aren't allowed to know what they've done."
Not everyone is sure, however, that the public needs to know. Lauretta Sheridan is a woman who successfully completed her furlough, landed a good job, and is planning a May wedding. She fears a more open policy would make it harder for people like her to settle in decent neighborhoods and start anew.
"There are good people who'd help," she said, "but there's also people who are very narrow-minded."
With the exception of Burlington, the state's largest city, Vermont is a mostly white state. Since it lacks the racial differences that create political complications in dealing with offenders in many states, it has generally enjoyed wide public support for innovative approaches to crime fighting and the rehabilitation of criminals.
Inside the golden-domed Statehouse, lawmakers generally echo that support, but differ over how much information to provide. Some worry that too much publicity would breed anxiety and vigilantism; others don't want the facts to flow through state-appointed panels.
"If I had people on furlough in my neighborhood, I would want to know," said Rep. Frank Mazur, a Republican from South Burlington. "I don't want to be referred to a board."