By Morgan True
Published online May 2, 2016
BURLINGTON — New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker praised what he called a “consensus of conviction” among top officials in Vermont around the need for criminal justice reform.
Booker was in the Queen City on Monday at the invitation of fellow Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy for a panel discussion on criminal justice reform that featured state and local leaders. The event drew close to 100 people, many of whom are involved in criminal justice or law enforcement across the state.
Leahy set the tone at the outset, saying the United States has an “over-incarceration problem,” locking up more people than any other country, a practice that he said isn’t making people safer and siphons resources away from other important areas such as education.
“We can’t give kids money for college, we can’t seem to do the things we need to do for housing, but we can spent $35,000 or $40,000 a year to lock people up. It doesn’t make sense,” Leahy said. Vermont is among 11 states that spend more on corrections than higher education.
Leahy and Booker touted sentencing reform legislation they co-sponsored, which would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent offenses and has bipartisan support in the Senate.
Booker said more needs to be done to reduce incarceration rates in the U.S., noting that the country has seen an 800 percent increase in the federal prison population since 1980, which he called “an outright betrayal of our values.”
After listening to the other speakers, Booker, who is a national leader for criminal justice reform, said it’s rare for a senator, governor, U.S. attorney, state’s attorney, and mayor and police chief of the largest city in a state to all be on the same page when it comes to changes.
Indeed, many of the reforms that Booker says are a priority for him nationally are already a reality in Vermont, such as laws allowing felons to vote and allowing for the expungement of a criminal record, and banning employers from asking about criminal convictions on a job application.
Felons have long been able to vote in Vermont, and the state expanded its expungement provisions last year.
Gov. Peter Shumlin will sign a “ban the box” bill — as the job application provision is known — at a ceremony Tuesday in Montpelier. Booker, who was unaware of the timing, joked that his presence had spurred Vermont into action.
It was not all praise from Booker, though, as he called out racial disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system. Booker said he learned that although black people are just 1 percent of Vermont’s population, they are 11 percent of its prisoners.
Addressing the panel during a question and answer period, Mary Brown-Guillory with the NAACP said she felt people of color have difficulty being heard in Vermont’s halls of power.
Booker said that, as one of only a handful of black senators in U.S. history, he understands feelings of marginalization and the intense desire to have people in power listen to a diversity of voices, but he defended Leahy as someone who has taken time to listen to those voices during his career in the Senate.
While it’s an undeniable factor, race is just one of many unjust indicators of who is likely to be incarcerated in the U.S., Booker said. He invoked the downtrodden described in the inscription on the Statue of Liberty: the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of a teeming shore.
“It’s almost as if at the end of that list that’s being described you could now slap at the end of that ‘Give me these people because that’s exactly who I’m going to put in prison in this country,’” Booker said.
That’s because America’s prisoners are overwhelmingly poor — with 75 percent qualifying for indigent defense — overwhelmingly drug-addicted, overwhelmingly mentally ill, overwhelmingly the victims of trauma or sexual abuse, Booker said.
In Vermont, indigent defense rates are even higher, with the defender general’s office involved in 84 percent of criminal cases, or roughly 22,000 each year, according to Defender General Matt Valerio.
“This is a broken system. It is not about justice. What is the justice in a system that compounds the problems that feed crime in the first place?” Booker asked.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan, an early adopter of diversion programs in Vermont, said it’s precisely because of the social determinants of who is likely to come in contact with the criminal justice system that prosecutors must exercise discretion.
Donovan said the first call he received the morning after being elected state’s attorney in 2006 was from Leahy, who held the same office in the 1960s.
“The one lesson (Leahy) said to me that I’ll never forget … and I think it is at the heart of the reform movement, he said, ‘Exercise restraint,’” Donovan said.
A lack of restraint on the part of prosecutors corresponds to “collateral consequences” in housing, education and employment, which over time has led to the marginalization of an entire segment of the population in the name of public safety, he said.
Restraint in criminal justice comes from “empathy and compassion” for the people the system sits in judgment of, said Donovan. That restraint is evident, he said, in Chittenden County’s Rapid Intervention Community Court, which he helped create in 2010.
The court takes people charged with nonviolent crimes, often those who cycle repeatedly through the system, and gives them an opportunity to complete a program instead of facing charges. The program involves restorative justice and making amends with their victims. It also connects people with counseling to help address mental illness or addiction.
People who stay in the program for three months have their charges dropped. Those who don’t then face the underlying charges. Close to 75 percent of participants complete the program successfully, said Emmet Helrich, Donovan’s deputy in charge of the Rapid Intervention Community Court.
Helrich, who spent decades as a Burlington police officer, said his time on the force taught him that “treating people with respect works.” The state has worked to roll out similar pretrial diversion programs in other counties.
There are now RICC programs in seven other Vermont counties, but as a recent Seven Days report highlighted, such a program has yet to be adopted in Bennington County, which locks up the most Vermonters per capita.
Donovan, who is running for attorney general, said after the event that he would use the office to ensure “consistent access across the state” to pretrial and restorative justice programs, which are not uniformly available to Vermonters.
“We don’t have one criminal justice system in this state, we have 14 different systems based on our current county system,” he said. “You get disparate outcomes in different parts of the state. That’s a fact, so I think part of the answer is to build a criminal justice system that is consistent, that is fair.”
Helrich and Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo both spoke to the difficulty of operating diversion programs or adopting a different approach to policing Vermont’s opiate crisis when it still takes months to get people into drug treatment in parts of the state — most notably Chittenden County.
Del Pozo appeared to address his remarks directly to Shumlin, who said he was proud of the work his administration has done to expand access to treatment but acknowledged there is more work to do.