Category Archives: justice and corrections

Through a Monitor, Darkly

More happy tidings concerning the much-ballyhooed “culture change” in the Vermont Department of Corrections in a VTDigger story about how state prisons are being reopened to visitors. The answer is slowly and incompletely, with strings attached. Unlike, say, the Scott administration’s policy toward the reopening of Vermont otherwise, which is to immediately remove all restraints.

The story also contains other tidbits that underscore the administration’s broader attitude toward inmates: that they don’t really deserve to be treated with dignity. There’s an undercurrent of “Inmates did something wrong and must be punished.” You see this over and over again in administration policy.

The DOC refused to prioritize inmates for vaccination, despite multiple outbreaks of Covid-19 inside our prisons. (Human Services Secretary made an absolute hash out of trying to explain that policy.) It put Covid-positive inmates into solitary confinement, which meant cruelly restrictive conditions normally reserved for the worst miscreants.

Now, the DOC is taking a go-slow approach to allowing visitors. “We want to make sure everybody is safe when we do this,” said Al Cormier, DOC director of operations. Gee, too bad that wasn’t the policy when inmates were made to wait their turn for vaccination even though they were demonstrably at high risk, and they could have been easily served because they’re all gathered in a handful of locations.

Continue reading

The Veepies, Again: Too Fast, Too Furious

For those just joining us, The Veepies are my occasional awards for stupidity in the public sphere. We’re still setting a brisk pace in that regard. So, here we go…

The We Gave You a Crappy Half-Apology Because We Had To, But We Really Didn’t Mean It Award goes to the Bennington Selectboard. Last month, the town reached a settlement with former state representative Kiah Morris over the police department’s actions, or inactions, regarding threats against Morris. This came after the state Human Rights Commission issued a preliminary finding that the Bennington PD had discriminated against Morris and her husband James Lawton. As part of the deal, Bennington had to issue a formal apology. And it was kind of half-assed, blame-the-victim stuff: “It is clear that Kiah, James and their family felt unsafe and unprotected by the town of Bennington.”

See, it’s not that the town did anything wrong; it’s just that Morris and her family felt unsafe. Put the onus on the victim. But wait, there’s more!

Whatever little value there was in that “apology” was completely undercut by the town’s attorney Michael Leddy, who insisted that there are “no reasonable grounds to believe” that the town was guilty of discrimination, and by Selectboard chair Jeanne Jenkins, who told VTDigger last week doesn’t believe the police department discriminated against Morris.

All they will acknowledge is that Morris “felt unsafe.” Well, Morris and her family have since relocated to Chittenden County, so problem solved, I guess?

After the jump: Empty climate rhetoric, Medicaid money for school cops, and propping up a dying industry.

Continue reading

There Is No Vaccine for Stupid: The Veepies Return Again

When I launched this series, I had no idea how often I’d have enough material for another edition. Turns out, it takes roughly one week. That’s almost one story per day. Here we go again with a healthy dose of Stupidity in the Public Sphere…

The Try to Fix a Problem, It Comes Back, Try the Same Thing Again, It Doesn’t Work, Try It Again, Another Fail, Try Again, You Know What They Say About History Repeating Itself Award goes to the Scott Administration for failing to address the repeated failures of the Labor Department. The weekend brought yet another story about unemployed Vermonters waiting weeks to get their checks or hours on hold to the Department’s call center.

It’s been one thing after another for DOL since the beginning of the pandemic. Its excuses have some truth in them; the UI system is a victim of long-term negligence at the federal level, and last spring’s tsunami of unemployment claims was unprecedented and unforeseeable.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington was dealt a bad hand, but he’s played it poorly. He has overseen failure after failure. Not only was he not fired or punished or removed to a quiet corner of the DMV, he actually got a promotion while his department was in flames. But it’s not all on him.

After the jump: Conspiracy theorists get their minute in court, a town ducks a feel-bad story, and a newspaper trolls avidly for advertisers’ favor.

Continue reading

A Curious Absence of Drama

As I wrote in my last post, this legislative session looked to be a difficult one at its onset. But there’s been a nearly complete lack of drama, as the House and Senate have made their way through allocating federal Covid relief aid, tackling Covid-related challenges, running the Big Bills smoothly through, and also addressing a notable number of issues that could easily have been kicked down the road till next year. As is common practice in the first year of a biennium.

It’s time to give House and Senate leadership a lot of credit for this. Things are getting done with no untimely eruptions, bruised feelings or twisted arms, no visible splits in the majority caucuses. No muss, no fuss.

What makes this more remarkable is that the two leaders, House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint , are each in their first year. Past leadership changes have usually brought rocky times in Year One. Houses-Senate relations get awfully tetchy.

Not this year. And that’s remarkable.

Continue reading

Bangs and Whimpers

The Senate Judiciary Committee did it again Friday morning. After having put up a royal fuss about a bill that passed easily in the House, members quickly folded their tents and moved the bill along with maybe a change or two.

This time it was H.225, the bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of buprenorphine. The House had passed it overwhelmingly, but its fate in the Senate seemed uncertain. Now, suddenly, it looks like clear sailing.

The committee didn’t take a formal vote, because technically the bill is in the purview of the Rules Committee. But all five Judiciary members indicated support for H.225 with the addition of a two-year sunset provision. The bill would take effect upon passage and expire on July 1, 2023. Sens. Dick Sears and Joe Benning insisted on the sunset, because they have concerns about how the bill would work in real life.

Which is a bit absurd. The Legislature is always free to revisit any law that isn’t working as intended.

Continue reading

We’ve Been Shortchanging Female Inmates for a Long Time

I don’t normally tune into a legislative committee hearing to get a history lesson. But that’s what I got Wednesday afternoon. It was a tough one to take.

Vermont’s women’s prison, d/b/a Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, is in really bad shape. It’s old, and was never designed to be a full-scale prison. It’s unsanitary and inadequate for inmates’ needs.

I knew that. What I didn’t know until today is that the CRCF has been that way since it first opened as a women’s prison back in 2011. The Shumlin administration moved female inmates into the already-aging facility knowing full well that it wasn’t up to par.

Continue reading

Welp, Looks Like I Closed Out the Veepies a Bit Too Soon

Break out the tiny violins for Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears, who’s just getting run ragged because the House has passsed sooooo many law and justice related bills.

After just a few minutes of discussion around the best language to use to redefine consent in Vermont, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, trailed off mid-sentence, “to be honest with you, I’m fried,” he said.

My first reaction was “Aww, poor baby.” But given the quality of Judiciary’s work lately, it might be best if they simply shut down for the year. The panel’s recent actions have made them worthy of The Kids in the Hall Award for Best Ensemble Performance in a Comedy Series.

Sears’ comment was reported by VTDigger’s Ellie French on Friday evening, shortly after I’d closed the books on the first ever Veepie Awards for Outstanding Stupidity on Public Display. The context was Judiciary’s struggles over H.183, which would enact several steps aimed at better enforcement of sexual violence.

The bill is such a tough nut to crack that the committee is threatening to basically gut it. Sen. Phil Baruth complained that “It’s not unusual for the House to put us in a position where we get things that are controversial or tough to deal with.”

Yeah, it was so controversial that it passed the House on a voice vote. Sheesh.

Continue reading

The Veepies: Awards for Outstanding Stupidity on Public Display

People occasionally ask me how I keep coming up with ideas. My answer is, there are always far more ideas than I can actually cover. This week, there were a few that I just couldn’t get to, but they seem worthy of note in short form. So, the first-ever Veepie Awards. Possibly a continuing series, but no promises. Or threats. The envelope, please…

Most Desperate Pushback Against Negative News Coverage. The winner is the Vermont Department of Corrections, which was on the bad end of a New York Times article outlining the toll of its Covid policies. In order to prevent outbreaks (at least a couple halppened anyway), DOC locked away exposed inmates in solitary confinement, the most extreme form of incarceration.

For weeks at a time… inmates were locked in 8½-by-10-foot cells in near-total isolation. They ate meals a few feet from their toilets, had no visitors, and spent as little as 10 minutes a day outside cells.

The strategy made the Vermont prison system one of the safest for contracting Covid, which is a dispiritingly low bar. But the cost, as the Times put it, has taken “a heavy toll on many inmates’ mental health, and driven some to psychological despair.”

And at least one to suicide. But hey, no Covid deaths!

Continue reading

Senate Looms Over Bupe Bill, Pillow in Hand

Funny thing happened when H.225, the bill to decriminalize possession of single doses of buprenorphine, moved over to the Senate after passing the House by a lopsided 126-19 margin. For those just tuning in, buprenorphine is a prescription opioid that can be used instead of riskier street drugs. Vermont’s death toll from overdoses has been climbing for years, and the decrim bill could save a lot of lives.

The bill reached the Senate on April 14. It was referred, not to the Health Care or Judiciary committees, but to the Rules Committee. It has languished there ever since, as the days in this session dwindle down to a precious few. (Legislative leaders are aiming for adjournment in mid-May which, despite the snow, is only three weeks away.)

And the Rules Committee has no meetings on its schedule.

This looks for all the world like a stalling tactic, as if leadership has decided (for whatever reason) to prevent the bill from reaching the Senate floor. And maybe that’s what it is, although Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint says otherwise. Sort of.

“I’ve been meeting with the Chairs of Judiciary and Health & Welfare to try to find a path forward for this bill given the late date that it came over from the House. We did not want to vote it out of Rules until we had a sense of how long testimony and due diligence would take. Health & Welfare and Judiciary are planning a joint hearing on the bill this coming week. We know we are in the midst of a horrible surge in opioid-related deaths and we want to take all measures to help address this emergency. The Chairs want to be certain that this bill will have that impact.”

That’s a written statement received Thursday afternoon in response to my inquiry. Let’s take a closer look, and then invite an expert to make the case for immediate passage of H.225.

Continue reading

It Shouldn’t Have Been This Hard

At the end of it all, the final vote was a formality.

On Thursday morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a very brief session on H.128, the bill that would ban the so-called “gay panic” defense in criminal trials. You know, the bill that passed the House 144 to one?

After many hearings full of farfetched hypotheticals and occasional racist-adjacent argumentation, the committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate floor.

So, a victory that shouldn’t have been so difficult to achieve. But in Senate committees with five members, one or two can really gum up the works.

The Thursday hearing was brief. There were two votes. The first was on an amendment to H.128 that would bar the defense at all phases of a criminal proceeding. The unamended version applied the ban only to the trial phase, still allowing for use of the defense at sentencing.

The amendment passed on a 3-2 vote, Sens. Joe Benning and Jeanette White voting “no.” Then the committee held a vote on the bill as amended, and that vote was unanimous.

The bill will almost certainly clear the full Senate with no trouble. But the committee dragged this out in a way that was hurtful to many. (Likely including Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, a member of the affected community.)

Continue reading