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The Burlington Free Press - Candidates Share Views on Public Safety

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The Burlington Free Press - Candidates Share Views on Public Safety

Terri Hallenbeck

The death of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett this summer propelled the state's sex offender policies into the spotlight, sending politicians scurrying for possible solutions to the events that allowed her alleged killer to be free despite a history of sex offenses.

Months later, the case is giving the issue of how Vermont deals with sex offenders a prominent place in the governor's race. While that issue has captured many Vermonters' attention this year, there are a host of other public safety matters that a governor faces.

This is a state without 24-hour police coverage in some regions, where there are more inmates than cells to house them, where debate rages over whether it makes sense to clog courts with marijuana arrests or fill prisons with substance abusers. Vermont has one of the lowest crime rates in the nation, and yet, every time a major crime occurs it raises questions about whether the state has sufficient resources, from the police who patrol streets to the labs that process evidence to the prosecutors who press charges, to the courts that hear cases and the prisons that lock up offenders.

All of those issues will demand the attention of the next governor.

Resources

In February, the head of the Vermont Troopers Foundation union stood with Senate leaders at a news conference criticizing Gov. Jim Douglas over staffing of the state police, which had 25 vacancies. Eight months later, that union endorsed Douglas.

Detective Sgt. Mike O'Neil said the union was satisfied with Douglas' response at the time, when he pledged to hire 15 new troopers this year and 15 more next year. The first group is in training at the police academy, O'Neil said, the next is due to be hired in January.

The state police force has not expanded during Douglas' six years in office, but filling those vacancies could mean more troopers will be on the job than when he took office. In October 2003, the state police had 326 authorized positions and 35 vacancies. Today, the state police have 327 authorized positions and 24 vacancies, said Public Safety Commissioner Tom Tremblay.

O'Neil said he still doesn't believe there are enough police officers in Vermont. He's hardly alone. A study is under way to look at Vermont's law enforcement coverage. A murder in Bennington County this year highlighted the fact that large gaps of the state lack 24-hour police coverage.

Republican Douglas, Democrat Gaye Symington and independent Anthony Pollina all say they are awaiting the results of the study to gauge whether Vermont should expand the state police, look to local municipalities for more coverage or leave things as they are.

"I think Vermonters are concerned about the level of police coverage," Symington said. She said she would like to look at ways communities can share services rather than duplicate.

Pollina has called for increased funding for state police. "I do think we can find room in the state budget," he said. He argued that increasing police coverage would save money by reducing crime.

Douglas said his priority is to fill the state police vacancies. With a tight state budget on the horizon, he said he couldn't commit to increasing funding.

Sex offenders

The debate over how Vermont deals with sex offenders is one that ultimately also comes down to a discussion of resources. More investigators, longer sentences, expansion of the sex offender registry, more education for prevention would all cost more money.

Often stymied by financial constraints, the gubernatorial candidates tussle over who has the smartest solution. Should there be a quick move to make longer sentences, deliberations over whether longer sentences will achieve their goal, or an increased focus on prevention? Those are the some of the defining differences among the candidates.

Shortly after Brooke's death, Douglas called on the Legislature, which had adjourned for the year, to meet for a one-day special session and make changes to related laws, including Jessica's Law and civil commitments to keep untreated sex offenders locked up beyond their criminal sentences. Symington, who is speaker of the House, resisted, saying lawmakers needed more time to think through the response. The Senate Judiciary Committee convened a series of hearings.

At a debate last week, Douglas criticized Symington for being unwilling to act quickly. Symington fired back that acting quickly could result in passing legislation that causes harm.

"Speaker Symington says it's OK to wait and have a lot of hearings," Douglas said.

"We could have changed our laws in ways that made our communities less safe," Symington responded. She pointed tp prosecutors' and victims' advocates' concerns that longer criminal sentences could make sex crimes more difficult to prosecute because more suspects would fight the charges and sex crimes trials are tricky.

Since the Senate Judiciary Committee has started holding hearings, all the candidates defer to its recommendations, which are expected to include establishing a new crime of aggravated sexual assault on a child with a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years. It would leave prosecutors the discretion of charging an offender with a less severe crime, but would offer a longer sentence for more clear-cut cases.

Douglas said it's close enough to the Jessica's Law national model to win his support. "The real proof will be in how prosecutors apply it in the future," he said.

Symington said it provides prosecutors enough leeway to win her support.

Pollina said the focus should instead be on preventing sex offenses. "It's more important that we try to do what we can to prevent these types of crimes," he said. "If putting people in jails solved crime there'd be no crime in Texas."

A matter of style

Beyond resources, the candidates seek to distinguish their style on issues of public safety.

Douglas pointed to endorsements he's received from various public-safety groups, from the state troopers to the state's professional firefighters. O'Neil, a detective who worked on the Brooke Bennett case, said Douglas has supported the troopers throughout his career. Talk of tougher sentences rings loud among them, he said.

Douglas proposed a list of 23 changes to state laws in response to Brooke's death, including enacting Jessica's Law and eliminating deferred sentences and expunged records for sex offenders.

Symington and Pollina, however, pointed to ways the Douglas administration has fallen short on public safety, criticizing Douglas for overseeing a probation system that released Michael Jacques, the convicted sex offender accused of killing Brooke, his niece.

"The Douglas administration seems to have dropped the ball on this," Pollina said. "Let's talk about why this happened."

Pollina also argued that a governor can lead the way in changing attitudes toward sexual violence. "It's having a governor who's willing to engage in having these conversations with kids. Jim Douglas does not seem capable of doing that."

Symington criticized Douglas for not pushing harder to expand special investigative units that handle sex offenses. The dedicated units exist in a few parts of the state but not all.

"We're moving in that direction," Douglas said."I agree with the concept of special investigative units. The question is instead of what?"


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