Category Archives: justice and corrections

Some Tortured Logic from the Attorney General’s Office

In the news today, the state of Vermont settled a discrimination lawsuit brought by a former clerk at the Washington County Courthouse in Barre. Shanda WIlliams was fired in 2018, and filed suit the following year alleging racial discrimination by her supervisor, Tammy Tyda. The state will pay her $60,000 to settle the case.

Fair enough. Sounds like the state got off lightly, given Seven Days’ account of her work experience. But there was a passage in the article that really bugs me. I think you can figure it out.

Last May, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office asked a federal judge to dismiss the case on the grounds that Williams’ initial filing was scant on evidence of discrimination. Williams had noted that she was the only Black worker in the Barre office. But the state argued that, because only 1.4 percent of Vermont’s population is Black, Williams’ “office was more diverse than Vermont generally.”

That’s some Kafkaesque reasoning right there. The only Black person in a workplace can’t possibly have suffered discrimination because… Vermont is an overwhelmingly white state?

Sheesh.

There’s so much wrong here.

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Admin Official Injures Self Attempting Verbal Arabesque

You get the feeling that Human Services Secretary Mike Smith was all prepared for a question about the Scott administration’s refusal to prioritize prison inmates for Covid-19 vaccinations. Because, as it turns out, he was kind of over-prepared.

At the administration’s Friday press conference, reporters were far more occupied with other issues. There were questions about teachers and child care workers and various classes of potentially high-risk cohorts, but the first mention of inmates didn’t come until the one hour, 37 minute mark.

At that point, Joe Gresser of the Barton Chronicle asked whether long-term care facilities near the Northern State Correctional Facility should change their visitation rules due to the Covid outbreak at the prison. Implying, I guess, that the prison outbreak could mean more danger in the surrounding community.

At which point Smith spent three minutes and 21 seconds on a soliloquy that didn’t actually answer Gresser’s question. The time was consumed in a word-salady defense of the state’s inmate vaccination policy. Which makes me think Smith was expecting a barrage of questions on the issue.

For those just joining us, the state’s policy is to consider inmates exactly as other Vermonters are considered. They get vaccinated when their age group or risk group gets vaccinated. No special treatment. Despite the fact that, according to defense attorney and inmate advocate Kelly Green, 44% of NSCF inmates have tested positive. Forty-four percent. If that’s not a high-risk cohort, I don’t know what is.

After the jump, I’m going to provide a transcript (my own) of Smith’s entire disquisition and then make some comments.

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Tightening Up the Hate Crime Law

I’ve written previously about Vermont’s inability to protect targets of hate crimes, especially those in public office. People of color, including former state rep Kiah Morris, have been hounded out of elective office — and have gotten no support or protection from law enforcement or prosecutors. Women in public life, who are frequently targets of harassment, also have to carry on with no recourse in the law. Which means, hey, the harassers win!

Turns out, somebody’s trying to do something about that. The House Judiciary Committee is working on a revision to Vermont’s hate crime law aimed at allowing more prosecutions while preserving Constitutional rights. More on this after a brief digression.

This is what they call a “committee bill,” meaning it’s drafted by a committee rather than an individual legislator. Coincidentally enough, VTDigger’s Kit Norton covered the phenomenon in last night’s episode of “Final Reading,” Digger’s free-subscription daily summary of legislative activity.

Unlike an ordinary piece of legislation, which is formally introduced by a member of the House or Senate, given a bill number and referred to a legislative panel for discussion, a committee bill is assembled, piece by piece, within a — you guessed it — committee. 

It lacks a bill number and isn’t easily found on the Legislature’s website. It can evolve quickly and quietly, under the radar, until it springs from committee, fully formed, onto the House or Senate floor. 

Norton writes that, for whatever reason, there are lots of these bills in the Legislature this year. He’s right; committee bills don’t show up in the Legislature’s searchable list of introduced bills. You have to go to the committee’s website and search around.

Back to the matter at hand. Apparently House Judiciary has been low-key working on this, in consultation with the Attorney General’s office. I’m glad to hear that, because I’ve specifically attacked T.J. Donovan for failing to prosecute hate crimes. This means Donovan recognizes the need for a change in the law. On Wednesday morning, the committee began hearing testimony on the bill. Testimony that showed how difficult a balancing act this legislation will be.

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Slate Ridge: That Was the Easy Part

Turns out you need a permit to do this kind of stuff.

The various law enforcement agencies that did nothing to help the people of West Pawlet are probably breathing a sigh of relief, now that an Environmental Court judge has ordered the Slate Ridge school terrorist training ground to close permanently for operating without the proper permits. Slate Ridge proprietor Daniel Banyai is on the hook for more than $46,000 in fines, plus the costs of dismantling all nonconforming structures.

But that sigh won’t last long. What are the chances that Banyai will meekly comply? I’d say zero. You may recall the 2007 case of Ed and Elaine Brown, two racist, anti-Semitic tax resisters who believed the whole “sovereign citizen” nonsense. After being convicted for refusing to pay their taxes for a full decade, they holed up in their Plainfield, New Hampshire compound and basically dared the feds to come and git ’em. The resulting standoff lasted 10 months.

Resolving the Banyai matter may well be a lot more complicated than that. So the folks who did nothing (Gov. Phil Scott, Attorney General T.J. Donovan, the Vermont State Police et al.) will eventually be obliged to take action.

Or they’ll just let the ruling to unenforced. Which would be the height of official cowardice.

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This Has Been a Bad Week for Phil Scott Exceptionalism

A couple of fresh stains have appeared on Gov. Phil Scott’s reputation for managing the pandemic. First is the mass outbreak at the Newport prison, second is Scott’s turnabout on vaccinating school and child care workers — one day after President Biden had ordered all 50 states to prioritize educators.

First, the bad (and utterly predictable) news from the Northern State Correctional Facility. Long-serving interim Corrections Commissioner James Baker said the prison “is now being treated like a hospital” after a round of testing produced 100 positives among inmates and another eight among facility staff.

Gee, who woulda thought. An outbreak among people forced to live indoors in tight conditions with iffy sanitary standards? You don’t say.

The inmates deserved better. Whatever their offenses, they are under state custody with no right or ability to take their own precautions against coronavirus. The state has an obligation to protect people under its care. The culture-change-in-progress DOC failed in that regard. And it failed because higher-ups in the Scott administration have refused to prioritize vulnerable inmates.

They still do, even after the outbreak at Newport.

Now, it’s admittedly tough to make these decisions. A lot of groups make persuasive claims for vaccine priority. But a few points to consider:

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Ass Clowns of the Antifa

The brave freedom fighters of Burlington have delivered a master stroke of stupidity.

During a City Council meeting in December, Councilor Joan Shannon was bombarded with prank calls — more than two hundred of them. The barrage interfered with her ability to participate in the meeting. Several miscreants were referred to a restorative justice program, which is way better than prosecution.

Now, you can think what you like about Joan Shannon. She’s a frequent target of abuse on Twitter, from people who think she’s a defender of the powerful and an opponent of police reform. Disagreeing with her is fair game. Trying to defeat her in the next election is fair game. Slagging her on social media is, well, not great, but within the bounds of what we all use social media for.

Prank calling? It’s juvenile. It’s sophomoric. And it’s counterproductive, since it’s likely to make Burlingtonians think less of the movement.

I mean, what’s next? TP’ing her trees? Tossing eggs at her house? Flaming bag of dogshit on the doorstep? Did the well-organized, principled folks who led the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 suddenly revert to the seventh grade?

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TJ Gets to Keep His Fig Leaf

Huzzah, hooray, the Vermont Supreme Court has upheld the state’s ban on high-capacity firearm magazines. It’s a nice little victory for a law that will mainly be used to add another charge to an offender’s charging document.

Because hey, nobody’s going to be out there doing primary enforcement of this thing. It’ll be enforced after the fact, when someone has been arrested for some other offense.

More importantly for Vermont’s top legal eagle, the court has allowed Attorney General T.J. Donovan to press his case against notorious asshole white supremacist Max Misch.

For those with short memories, Donovan filed the firearms charge against Misch after declining to prosecute Misch for hate crimes — particularly his open harassment of former state representative Kiah Morris, who left the Legislature because she was targeted by haters.

His decision not to pursue hate crime charges triggered a backlash from those who thought Misch deserved some kind of punishment, and that Morris deserved some kind of recourse in the law. After all, the police barely lifted a finger* to investigate her complaints of harassment. Ditto the Bennington County State’s Attorney. Donovan’s decision not to prosecute Misch meant that Morris got absolutely zero protection from the criminal justice system.

*In fact, Police Chief Paul Doucette’s biggest issue with the case was that “it is damaging the reputation of the Town of Bennington, the Bennington Police Department and myself personally.” He has also accused Morris of profiting financially off her claims. Nice guy.

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Straw Men and Uppity Women (UPDATED)

So the big question on #vtpoli Twitter today was: Did Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling call Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky “uppity”?

Short answer: Yeah, kinda.

See note below: Schirling has issued a kinda-apology.

It happened in a Thursday hearing by the House Judiciary and Government Operations committees, to consider a statewide use-of-force policy for law enforcement personnel. I didn’t monitor the hearing live, but after seeing some outraged tweets, I listened to the passage in question. (One of the benefits of the Zoom Legislature is that all hearings are streamed live, and archived, on YouTube. I hope they continue the practice after We All Return To Whatever Normal Is.)

Vyhovsky and Schirling had a lengthy colloquy about current policy and practice. She questioned whether police should be trained, “first and foremost,” in de-escalation tactics instead of resorting to force. Schirling acknowledged the need to review training practices, but said her premise (that police use force more often than they should because of the training they receive) was dead wrong.

I’ll go through the confab in more detail after the jump, but first we’ll cut to the chase. At the end of the back-and-forth, Schirling made reference to “the somewhat uppity exchange that the Representative and I had.” He paused before “uppity.” I think he was searching for the right word. He chose the wrong one.

He did not actually refer to Vyhovsky as “uppity,” but that’s how he characterized their discussion. The problem is, “uppity” is often used to describe women or people of color who don’t “know their place.” It definitely has a pejorative connotation. And I doubt he would characterize himself as “uppity.”

Schirling committed another offense, albeit a very common one, elsewhere in the exchange. He consistently misinterpreted Vyhovsky’s points and instead whaled away at straw men of his own devising. He didn’t take her arguments seriously. Which is a subtler kind of sexism than calling someone “uppity.”

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Tell me again why we can’t defund the police

One of the homey little touches in my local newspaper, the Times Argus, is the regular listing from the police blotter. This is labeled “a sampler” from the log; I can’t say how they choose what they print. I’d assume it’s somewhat representative.

Well, if it is, then Montpelier could probably get by with a couple fewer cops. The latest Police Log largely contains calls that didn’t require an armed response, and every log is simliar in content. Let’s run it down, shall we?

Feb. 1: On Northfield Street, a report of someone having seizures who was using alcohol and Valium was unfounded.

Well, ehh. Better handled by a trained social worker. Which is one of the ideas offered by the “Defund the Police” movement: Fewer cops and more social worker/counselor types.

A vehicle broke down on Main Street.

I’d suggest calling Bob’s Sunoco. Very prompt towing service. Or AAA if you’re a member.

Someone from Oregon called to report their Vermont phone number was prank called. They were told to contact their local police.

Yeah, no.

Feb. 2: A trash can was blocking a sidewalk plow on Pearl Street.

Get out of the truck and move the damn thing.

After the jump: The carnage continues.

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Adventures in Bureaucracy, Capitol Security Division

“Bureaucracy” is usually a pejorative term meaning excessive complication and expense, especially in the public sector. That’s one side of it, for sure. On the other hand, the public’s business must inevitably involve some level of bureaucracy.

Take, for example, security in Montpelier’s Capitol Complex. The map above shows it almost exactly. The borders, more or less, are the Winooski River in the south, Bailey Avenue on the west, Terrace Street and somewhere behind the Statehouse on the north, and Governor Aiken Street/Taylor Street to the east. It’s a mix of state buildings, privately owned buildings, lawns and parking lots. The state properties include all three branches of government plus offices for statewide elected officials.

Security in the area involves numerous entities, including the Capitol Police, the Department of Buildings and General Services, the judiciary’s security team, the Montpelier Police Department, the Washington County Sheriff’s office, and the Vermont State Police.

That’s a lot of bureaucracies, and they need seamless coordination to provide effective security. This was the subject of a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Institutions Committee which, frankly, was bone-dry at times — but nonetheless crucial, if we’re to have the best security in and around the Capitol.

Which has become much more urgent in recent years, with frequent demonstrations in and around the Statehouse and the threat of potentially violent protests around President Biden’s election and inauguration.

Security protocols for the complex are laid out in a Memorandum of Understanding involving the Capitol Police, BGS and judicial branch security. The most recent version was crafted in 2016, and committee chair Joe Benning believes there’s a pressing need to “rebuild [the MOU] from scratch.” He wants to come up with a draft MOU by the end of this month.

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