One of my favorite Vermont sayings, “You can’t get there from here,” applies to the double standard our state has when it comes to our policy on criminal justice reforms. Our progressive state, known for social reforms, known for breaking barriers, is far ahead of other states, I don’t doubt the truth of that. Vermont should take a look at how we are treating the inmate population.
There are, fortunately, many protections for the victims of crimes, and there should be. People affected by crime need to have supports and a voice in the criminal justice process. If, however, we continue to fail to provide those who have committed the crimes an equal opportunity to repair the harm they’ve committed, then we create more victims, unsafe communities, and fail to provide those who’ve committed the crimes an opportunity to succeed.
Let’s begin with the reality that April was “Second Chance” month. The way our state recognized this important opportunity to give offenders in our state a second chance was by S.18, “An Act relating to limiting earned good time sentence reductions for offenders convicted of certain crimes,” now a law, which gives those with “non-violent crimes” an opportunity for a reduction based on their behaviors. A good premise, that fails to take into account that people who commit a crime that is considered violent should be provided with the same opportunity.
The underlying sentiment is that if one commits a crime that is violent, they will be placed in the category of beyond redemption. The Vermont government has created a class of offenders, much like that of India’s caste system. There are now those who can be redeemed, and provided opportunities, while at the same time there are the “untouchables,” those who are beyond redemption.
No different from S.18, is S.7 “An act related to expanding access to expungement and sealing of criminal history records.” Unless, of course, you have committed a violent crime. In the event one is at their lowest point and/or makes a drug or alcohol-induced decision, the state of Vermont will not allow people to be eligible for expungements —again reinforcing the stigma of crime and not allowing people to grow from the experience and become productive members of our communities. Really no different from the public sex offender registry, which has been proven ineffective and a costly boondoggle.
Attorney General Donovan has made it a mission, while in office, to support these initiatives, while paying little or no attention to state’s attorneys in Vermont who are actively pursuing remedies and solutions to decrease incarceration through legal means. These same state’s attorneys are promoting criminal justice reforms only to be overruled by the Attorney General, who appears to follow an old adage:“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve got,” which fails to take into account that people evolve, and can change.
In the end I am reminded of what a family friend and one time Senator from Bennington, James B. Gibney, said, “If I make you a promise and I break it, I’ll make you another.” The promise that our state leaders are breaking is outlined in Article 1 of the Vermont Constitution, “That all persons are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights, amongst which are… obtaining happiness and safety.”
Timothy R. Burgess,
Burgess is a former inmate of the Vermont Dept. of corrections. He is now a prisoner advocate and mediator.