State News

Prosecutors split on criminalizing serious threats to social workers and others

By Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Trissie Casanova, a social worker, testifies Wednesday , Feb. 3, at the State House about threats to Department for Children and Families employees. Casanova and others seek stricter penalties for assaulting social workers.

By Elizabeth Hewitt,

Trissie Casanova told lawmakers Wednesday, Feb. 3, that she’s been a social worker for 13 years.

“I personally have been threatened to be killed, my building blown up, I’ve had people waiting for me outside by my car. I’ve had things sent to my personal home. I have been personally sued for doing my job,” Casanova said. “And I know I’m not the only person that’s experienced these things.”

Six months after a social worker was shot to death as she left her office in Barre, lawmakers are considering a bill, S.154, that would heighten penalties for assaulting social workers. The bill would also create a new crime: threatening anyone, not just social workers, in such a way that they fear for their life or wellbeing.

While some prosecutors and state workers strongly support the measure, others, including Washington County State’s Attorney Scott Williams, are wary. Williams was in downtown Barre when social worker Lara Sobel was shot one August afternoon as she left work.

He was one of the first on the scene and held Sobel as she died.

Williams told the Senate Judiciary Committee he supports part of the bill that imposes enhanced penalties for assaulting a social worker—the same way penalties are steeper if someone assaults a police officer or a firefighter on the job.

But he urged lawmakers to use caution in making a new crime to punish threats that cause someone to reasonably fear for his or her safety. Making threatening behavior a crime will not stop people from making threats, he said.

“I’m really looking to figure out how do we stop people from acting in these ways that we don’t want them to act, as opposed to punishing them,” Williams said.

Williams said he knew the woman who is accused of killing Sobel, Jody Herring, before Sobel and three of Herring’s family members were killed. “I had seen Jody Herring on July 7 in court. I did not anticipate that I’d be seeing her on Aug. 7 under the circumstances that I did,” Williams said. “If you had come to me and said, ‘I think this might happen,’ I’m not sure I would have believed you.”

Other prosecutors take a different stance on the proposals.

Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage said Sobel’s slaying had a resounding effect across the state. “I think we’ve all changed the way we do business,” she said.

Marthage said she frequently struggles with how she can address serious threats of violence—a problem she says predates Sobel’s death. She cited a recent instance when a teenager had told a classmate over instant messaging that he planned to bring his father’s firearm to school.

“We have no way of knowing which threats are the ones that could actually come to fruition and the ones that aren’t,” Marthage said. “The statutes as they are now make it extremely difficult to prosecute those cases,” she said.

She urged lawmakers to take up the bill, arguing that the new criminal penalty would be an important public safety tool when serious threats are made.

Several members of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, the union that represents state workers, testified in favor of the bill. Casanova, the social worker, said she believes the legislation would be an important step toward improving worker safety.

A law criminalizing threats will not stop everyone from trying to intimidate or injure social workers on the job, Casanova said. But, she added, “I do believe that it’s going to deter some people.”

The union would like to see the bill expanded so an assault on any state employee because of his or her job would have an enhanced penalty.

Margaret Crowley, a case manager in the judiciary branch, said members of the public don’t differentiate between the roles employees play in the judicial and child protection systems when they’re emotional after a hearing.

When she is handing someone paperwork after a court hearing,

“I am the face of government,” Crowley said. Crowley also said the union would like to see a mandatory minimum sentence for assaulting state employees.

The enhanced penalty also has the support of the Department for Children and Families, according to Commissioner Ken Schatz.

“Social workers do incredibly important work, and the reality is they’re on the front lines like other first responders, sometimes working with individuals who get very emotional,” Schatz said.

He said DCF employees have reported receiving 125 threats since August.

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the part of the bill that enhances penalties for assaulting social workers may address a need.

But, he said, his organization has serious concerns about the free speech implications of the new crime.

He cited a Vermont Supreme Court decision from August in which the justices wrote that under state law speech is illegal only if it is “so inflammatory that it is akin to dropping a match into a pool of gasoline.”

“They wanted to convey that there has got to be a really strong reason why you think speech alone should be a crime before somebody could be convicted,” Gilbert said.

Defender General Matt Valerio told legislators Vermont law is already sufficient to address serious threats. The bill, Valerio said, “aside from being a political statement, doesn’t really get at anything of benefit to the criminal justice system.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the sponsor of the bill, said he’s interested in looking at expanding the enhanced penalty to other state employees, but he’s concerned about the proposal to create a mandatory minimum sentence.

“This is, to me, one of the more important bills for the committee this year,” Sears said.

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