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The Rutland Herald - Candidates Differ on Ways to Curb Crime

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The Rutland Herald - Candidates Differ on Ways to Curb Crime

Brent Curtis

Over the last several years Vermonters have witnessed an increase in fatal drug-related violence, and the high-profile kidnappings and slayings of a 12-year-old girl in Randolph and several young women in Chittenden County.

The spate of violent crime has rocked the state and led officials to re-evaluate the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.

For the three candidates in the governor's race, crime has become a hot-button issue.

As the Senate Judiciary Committee worked through the summer and fall on recommended changes to the state's sex offender laws, Republican Gov. James Douglas has pushed for the passage of a 23-point plan, Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington has her own five-point plan, while Independent Anthony Pollina has focused on a more general and cultural approach to sex crime prevention.

Douglas' plan hinges on longer sentences for sex offenders, greater oversight and public access to sex offender records — and even perpetual incarceration for some high-risk offenders, known as civil confinement.

"Every year we have two or three people who are likely to re-offend let out," Douglas said Thursday. "We need another layer of protection."

The three most critical components of Douglas' plan reflect that notion - calling for 25-year minimum sentences, civil confinement and an expanded sex offender registry.

Earlier this month, a petition, signed by 52,000 Vermonters, calling for 25-year mandatory minimum sentences was presented to the Senate committee, which has proposed a Vermont version of Jessica's Law. Under the committee's proposal, prosecutors would have the choice of using either the proposed new law with mandatory minimum sentences or existing statutes that offer more prosecutorial leeway.

Douglas said the compromise is acceptable as long as prosecutors act in accordance with what he said are the wishes of Vermonters to see more long-term sentences.

"I can't recall another display of support like this for anything," he said. "Time will tell if this will work. I respect the discretion of the prosecutors. They have to build a case. But Vermonters want stiffer penalties."

Symington said she, too, likes the Senate Judiciary Committee's mandatory minimum sentence proposal, which she described as a "thoughtful way" to impose longer sentences while preserving prosecutorial options for plea deals in cases with incomplete evidence.

While the House Speaker and Douglas have that much in common, Symington said she doesn't agree with most of the governor's proposals.

"I want to keep children safe rather than sound tough," she said. "I think we need to think first before we act based on our anger."

While longer jail sentences are worthwhile considerations, Symington said they're meaningless if prosecutors lack the tools or evidence to obtain convictions in the first place.

One of the keys to her five-point plan is to expand and fully staff special investigative units specializing in sex crimes, which she said the Douglas has been slow to support around the state.

"I've seen them be effective and I want to expand them statewide," she said.

Presently only two special investigative units are fully up and running in the state. Symington attributes this slow progress in part to Douglas' failure to act quickly.

Douglas said he supported the creation of the units in 2006 and additional funding for the SIUs in the last budget cycle.

"This is an example of political rhetoric creating an issue where there isn't one," Douglas said.

Symington's plan also calls for hearings and written reports before sex offenders are released on probation, the collection of DNA samples from sex offenders for identification and the admission of prior sexual misconduct into court.

While Douglas and Symington have exchanged barbs, Pollina has mostly stood outside the fray focusing on other issues.

"They spend a lot of time bickering," the Independent candidate said. "It exemplifies why not a lot gets done in Vermont."

Rather than talk about mandatory minimum sentences - which he said only give people a "false sense of security" - or obtaining convictions in cases, Pollina said he is focusing on preventing sex crimes, which he said are predominantly the result of an objectifying culture, poverty and desperation.

"The governor needs to engage citizens about why these crimes are happening," he said. "It's easier for him to talk about putting people in prison rather than talk about the reasons why it's happening."

Pollina said as governor he would start a dialogue by visiting schools and using the platform of the governor's office to counter a culture that he says "tells men and boys that it's OK to abuse women."

To some extent, Pollina blamed sexual crimes and violence against children on economic hardships that he said have contributed to desperate acts.

"It has as much to do with poverty and joblessness as anything else," he said.

For offenders coming out of the prison system, Pollina said he would tighten probation and parole measures to prevent the early release of offenders such as Michael Jacques, the 42-year-old Randolph man accused of kidnapping and killing his niece, 12-year-old Brooke Bennett of Braintree in June.

"Some of us don't understand how a fellow like this guy was let out," he said. "He was allowed early release from prison and was even allowed to live with a girl."

Douglas said he agrees with Pollina that preventive measures, such as public awareness and parental education, are important. But continued monitoring and public awareness of sexual offenders beyond prison walls and even indefinite incarceration are also essential, he said.

Two primary elements of Douglas' plan, however, face uphill battles.

His civil confinement proposal, which would mandate indefinite imprisonment for unrepentant sex offenders deemed likely to re-offend, will likely be left off the Judiciary Committee's list of recommendations, according to Sen. Richard Sears, the chairman of the committee.

The second difficulty comes down to money. Expanding the Internet sex offender registry to include information about 2,000 additional offenders is estimated to cost more than $3 million.

In a tight fiscal year that has already seen a $32 million reduction to the state's existing budget, Douglas acknowledged that it would be hard coming up with the money to update the Web site.

"It would present a budgetary challenge," Douglas said. "Finding the funding would be difficult, but it ought to be done."

To support that position, Douglas pointed out that he protected public safety funding from the mid-year budget cuts.

Symington has said funding the special investigative units is "a matter of priority, not dollars and cents."

The House Speaker's plan to protect programs such as Prevent Child Abuse Vermont and Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence from budget cuts would also cost money.

One area where both candidates have a chance of finding some public safety dollars is in redefining the role of the Vermont State Police. The Legislature is waiting on the results of a study to be released next month that will make recommendations for the state's 327-trooper force.

Douglas, who said he has increased public safety spending three times the growth rate of the General Fund in recent years, said he hopes to utilize troopers in more sex crime investigations in the future.

"State troopers are highly trained and outstanding investigators," he said. "I think it makes sense to use their skills to the best possible advantage."

The Vermont State Police, however, also serve as local forces for many of the state's small towns.

With that in mind, Symington said she would also like to see state police take a more active role in sex crime investigations while continuing to provide services for communities that cannot afford to staff their own forces.

"I think it would be very difficult for a town as small as Tinmouth to have a police department," she said.

While reserving judgment until the report is issued next month, Symington said it would make sense to coordinate efforts between local police departments, county sheriffs and state police to divide coverage and offer troopers more time to focus on difficult investigations.

Pollina would also like to see the state police focus more on investigations - an initiative he said he would support through additional funding not only for troopers but for local law enforcement.

"Our police forces are good but there's a lack of a coordinated message and support," he said.

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