Part II in a three-part series on the July 6 Chittenden County State’s Attorney candidate forum
By Guy Page
Yesterday’s news report that Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George suggested taxpayers reimburse retail stores for shoplifting losses raised eyebrows across Vermont, as the 30 comments on Vermont Daily Chronicle and many others elsewhere on social media demonstrate.
But that wasn’t the only interesting observation George made during her July 6 candidate forum with challenger Ted Kenney. The George Soros-backed incumbent also claimed she and her office are being “scapegoated” for growing public safety woes, and discussed her leadership in an organization seeking to abolish incarceration.
George and Kenney are seeking the Democratic nomination in the August 9 primary. There is no Republican running at present. It is likely that whoever wins the primary will serve as the county’s chief criminal prosecutor for the next four years.
In his opening statement, Kenney, a lawyer living in Williston, urged that “we need to change what’s going on now.” He cited 2021 Burlington crime stats:
- A record-high number of opiate overdoses, up 33% over any previous year
- Crime up 10%
- Larceny the highest in five years
- Unlawful mischief the highest in 10 years
- Burglaries up, but rate of prosecution is down
Also, 2022 car thefts in South Burlington “are one or two cars away” from breaking last year’s record, which was twice the annual average for the last five years, Kenney said. He also pointed at increased attacks on Burlington firefighters and UVMMC nurses.
In response, George said her office is being “scapegoated.” She deflected criticism of her office by assigning some blame to law enforcement, the pandemic, the public, the press, and even judges.
About the recent revelation of assaults on hospital nurses, George said: “I was incredibly upset to hear that. I was not aware that it was as bad as it was.” Then she blamed police for allegedly not referring the cases for prosecution: “those cases had never been sent to our office by law enforcement. It’s important to first note that we can only do things with cases that are sent to us. We don’t control things that aren’t sent to us.”
People shouldn’t expect prosecution to solve public safety problems, George said. Instead, Chittenden County needs more social services.
“That being said, prosecution of a lot of these individuals involved in these cases isn’t going to solve the problem,” George said. “What those folks need are services in the community. They need help. Of course they need accountability, but that looks different for each person.”
George blamed the decline of public safety on the pandemic.
“Ultimately, these people in our community, especially during Covid, and having nothing to do with the policies of my office but entirely to do with the incredible amount of people who are houseless, people with food insecurity, people who are struggling to find work and child care, and all of the other woes and issues that come with the pandemic, have been scapegoated on my office, and we are not the solution to it.
“There are some things we can do for some of them. But individuals are going to be released pretrial for most offenses, and that is not going to protect people if these people’s needs aren’t being met. Whether a criminal charge and strict conditions of release are imposed or not, if they don’t have a place to stay, they don’t have a place to eat, they don’t have food to eat, they are going to continue to be an issue in our community, so that is what we should be focusing on.”
Kenney replied: “The things that can be done need to be done and need to be done more effectively.” Kenney, former chair of the county Democratic Committee, supports more social spending. “But we’re not living in the Great Depression. We’re not looking at 25% unemployment. What is going on in the criminal justice system needs to be addressed within the criminal justice system. If someone needs more conditions of release to protect the public, that’s something that needs to be advocated for.”
Then George placed responsibility for conditions of release on the judges. Prosecutors may ask, but it’s up to judges to impose, she advised.
George insisted she and her hardworking staff of 14 are “asking for conditions of release when we can, but it’s ultimately up to the judge…..…the judges are deciding and implementing whatever conditions of release they think are necessary.”
And anyway, flight risk isn’t an issue because people haven’t needed to actually attend court, anyway. “During Covid people haven’t been required to come to court. In terms of a risk of flight, that hasn’t happened, because people haven’t been required to come to court.”
Kenney said a man who recently allegedly assaulted a firefighter had previously been charged with a simple assault in January, then charged with violating release orders, then charged with two burglaries and disorderly conduct. In none of these cases, Kenney claimed, did George’s office ask the judge to impose a curfew or release to a responsible adult.
It’s the prosecutors job to ask, Kenney insisted. “The judge is generally going to give you [conditions] that you ask for. The conditions of release that could have been requested were not requested,” Kenney said.
It’s not a good sign when the judge adds conditions of release that weren’t even requested by a prosecutor, Kenney added.
Then George blamed the press and the public for not understanding the deep complexity of prosecuting criminal cases. “The reality is that these cases are very complicated. There’s not a simple solution.”
Next: Part three in a three-part series on the July 6 Chittenden County State’s Attorney candidate forum: why Sarah George wants to close the women’s prison in Chittenden County and is one of two directors of Women’s Justice & Freedom Initiative, a not-for-profit dedicated to abolishing incarceration and closing all prisons.