Tag Archives: Vermont ACLU

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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The Corrections Culture

Corrections Commissioner James Baker continues to make the right noises. On Friday, after news that more than two-thirds of Vermont inmates at a Mississippi for-profit prison had tested positive for coronavirus, Baker talked of accountability and responsibility and the need for a culture change inside his department.

Now, if only he can make it happen. The DOC is a hidebound place, full of long-tenured employees whose kneejerk reaction is to defend the status quo.

In one of his first actions, Baker sent two DOC administrators to Mississippi to get a first-person look at things. He said he was “reassured” upon hearing their reports.

Not so fast, my friend. One of the two who made the trip was DOC facilities operations manager Bob Arnell. That’s the Bob Arnell who was once the superintendent of the state’s extremely troubled women’s prison.

I’m sure ol’ Bob knows all about problematic institutional culture. After all, he became superintendent after the inglorious departure of his predecessor, David Turner, who requested reassignment in 2012 “days after a report emerged that condemned the conditions” at the prison. (Turner, “a veteran employee” of the DOC, was shuffled elsewhere in the department.)

And we all know that, ever since, the women’s prison has been the very model of excellence. Oh wait.

In recent years, …guards have sexually assaulted inmates, harassed female employees, and pursued sexual relationships with women who have left the prison but remain on furlough, probation or parole — and, therefore, under DOC supervision.

That’s from a December 2019 story by Paul Heintz of Seven Days, reporting on widespread allegations of sexual misconduct and drug use in the prison — and the almost complete lack of DOC response to all of it. Except to threaten retaliation against inmates who had the guts to complain.

I don’t know how long Arnell was in place at the facility, but let’s conclude he didn’t have any perceptible impact on the “culture.” But I’m sure if he says everything is hunky-dory in Mississippi, we can take his word for it.

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Let Us Now Praise Doomed Policy Proposals

The fine folks at the Vermont ACLU got together Tuesday to unveil a plan that would cut the state’s inmate population by hundreds — which would, among other things, allow Vermont to bring its out-of-state inmates back home. (It’d also save money in a bloated corrections budget.)

Great idea. And in the words of Rice University Prof. Quincy Maddox, “Ain’t nothin’ gon’ happen.”

Seriously, I have to admire the dedication of these public interest advocates who do all kinds of research and put together plausible policy proposals in professional-quality brochures and pdfs that you just know are destined to get the bone-saw treatment in the legislative abbatoir. (Not on the official public tour.)

The plan calls for an end to cash bail (at any moment, hundreds of Vermonters are behind bars for failure to post bail), expanding alternatives to incarceration, better treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders, sentencing and prosecutorial reform, decriminalization of certain offenses including sex work, and better options for released inmates.

For years now, our political leaders have paid lip service to the notion of bringing all our inmates back home. But even as we’ve seen scandals and problems and questionable policies at out-of-state prisons, our leaders have failed to follow through.

This time, as usual, there’s plenty of lip service to be had.

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