On the Issues
Current national surveys show that virtually all Americans believe that criminal justice reform is necessary and, of those polled, 89% believe we incarcerate too many people.
The State of Vermont’s inmate population has doubled since the 1990s even though the crime rate has fallen. Vermont currently sends prisoners to out-of-state privately owned facilities and there are discussions in the state legislature to build another 925-bed facility.
The State’s biggest contributor to this problem is Bennington County. The current State’s Attorney sends almost twice as many people to jail as the state average even though Bennington County has never had the highest crime rate. Many of those who are incarcerated have yet to be convicted of a crime and are waiting for trials that are routinely rescheduled month after month due to backlogs caused by the excessive number of cases that are filed. The problem is further exacerbated by the failure to refer cases for alternative types of sentences and treatment.
The attitude and culture of the Bennington County State's Attorney's Office must change in order to accurately reflect current times. For way too long, there has been an overzealous prosecutorial culture that ignores the real underlying issues in Bennington County. The prioritization of high conviction rates and harsh sentences is increasingly out of step with both proven alternative measures to reduce crime and the general public's desire for criminal justice reform. As State's Attorney, Arnie will change the current culture.
The issue of mass incarceration will be addressed by filing only cases that can be sufficiently proven, allowing bail for low-level offenders who are likely to appear in court when required, and considering alternative forms of sentencing for first-time offenders and individuals who commit lower-level crimes as a result of addiction issues.
It is no secret that we are in the midst of an opiate crisis. This scourge on our society is tearing apart families in numerous ways. As more and more cases are finding their way into the criminal justice system, it is important to recognize that the problems are multi-dimensional and include issues of prevention and treatment. Agencies, families and the court system must coordinate their efforts for maximum effectiveness.
Arnie believes that while major drug dealers must be incarcerated, those who commit crimes while under the influence of drugs must be dealt with in new and effective ways. History shows that we cannot jail our way out of this crisis.
As State's Attorney for Bennington County, Arnie will address addiction as a medical issue, not a crime. There will be a renewed emphasis on innovative rapid intervention programs, diversion programs and a reexamination of the overwhelming desire of Bennington County residents for the creation of a drug court.
Not only will a multidisciplinary approach be more effective, it is fiscally prudent. Statistics show that the incarceration of one individual costs taxpayers between $40,000 and $60,000 per year. According to the Government Accountability Office and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, drug courts significantly reduce crime, save taxpayers considerable money, and cut recidivism rates by more than half. Arnie will take the initiative and be an advocate for the creation of a drug court in Bennington County.
The primary responsibility of any State's Attorney is to help ensure the safety of the county's citizens. This means targeting the crimes that matter most. Offenses committed by sexual predators, crimes that involve the use of weapons, acts of violence, and narcotic possession or sales by major drug dealers will be emphasized. Offenders who prey on children, the elderly and those with disabilities will receive the harshest sentence recommendations.
The current State's Attorney has been ineffective in prosecuting the most serious offenses. As a result of a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the Bennington County's clerk's office has provided records that show there have been no convictions to date on 10 originally filed homicide charges beginning in 2016. It is unclear whether the lack of convictions is a result of overcharging or ineffective prosecution. Please refer to our Images Gallery for a chart of our findings.
Cases that come to court have one thing in common - they all have witnesses or victims. Often these people are lost in the shuffle or forgotten when cases get rescheduled month after month. Arnie will create a panel to advise the State's Attorney on how to improve the court process, help eliminate the trauma that has occurred, support witnesses and victims as they recover, and break the cycle that exists between victim and perpetrator.
Law enforcement plays a major part of any criminal prosecution. The State's Attorney must work together with state and local departments for the efficient and effective prosecution of all cases. One of Arnie's first actions will be to sit down with all department heads to review the process of investigating, prosecuting and monitoring ongoing cases to determine what changes will best serve the State's Attorney's Office and the citizens of Bennington County.
With the recent decriminalization of marijuana possession in the State of Vermont, it is now time for Bennington County to take the proactive step of assisting those with past violations in getting their convictions expunged.
It makes no sense to burden people with lifelong criminal records for conduct that is no longer a crime. People with past marijuana convictions have roadblocks in accessing employment, higher education, student loans, housing, and service in the military.
Arnie will take a leadership role and be at the forefront of this often lengthy and bureaucratic process. It is an example of how our county can participate in the criminal justice reform movement that is sweeping the country.