A debate is brewing around the state’s juvenile justice system.
Last year, the Vermont Legislature expanded its definition of youthful offenders from those below age 18 to include defendants up to age 22. Since then, a number of cases in which the defendants would previously have been tried as adults have disappeared from criminal court into juvenile court, and out of the public eye. These included some high-profile cases, such as the attempted murder charge against Tyreke Morton in Washington County and the case of accused would-be school shooter Jack Sawyer in Rutland County.
According to data provided Friday by the Vermont Court Administrator’s Office, the juvenile system has 342 cases throughout the state involving defendants who were between the ages of 18 and 22 when charged. The office counts cases rather than defendants, so the total number of people in the system in that age group could be smaller.
The cases are listed by the “most serious” charge filed, many of which are drug or alcohol crimes or misdemeanor assaults or thefts. Twenty-six are some kind of felony assault. Forty-six are sex crimes, including 12 charges of sexual assault — no consent, 10 of sexual assault on a victim under 16, three of sexual assault on a victim under 13, seven of child luring, six of lewd and lascivious behavior with a child and one of repeated sexual assault.
A bill that passed the Senate last week and is now in the House would tighten up youthful offender eligibility. The rewrite rules out the status for a list of specified crimes — arson causing death, assault and robbery with a dangerous weapon or causing bodily injury, aggravated assault, murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, unlawful restraint, maiming, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault and burglary into an occupied dwelling — for defendants between 20 and 22 unless the state’s attorney determines otherwise.
“You might have a rare case where someone is charged with a very serious crime but there are extenuating circumstances,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, regarding the prosecutorial discretion.
Sears said the bill would change the evaluation tool for sex offenders entering the program because experts from the Department of Corrections told the committee that the current tool created “false risk assessments.”
Sears said this is not the first time high-profile court cases have triggered tinkering with the juvenile court system — the reaction to a murder case in the early 1980s prompted then-Gov. Richard Snelling to call a special session of the Legislature.
Why aren’t adults just being charged as adults? It has to do with a new understanding of how brains develop.
“The way that a 22-year-old makes a decision is exactly the same way a 13-year-old makes a decision and it’s different from the way a 27-year-old makes a decision,” said Marshall Pahl, supervising attorney at the juvenile division of the Office of the Defender General. “It’s all frontal-lobe behavior. Most of these kids go on to be just fine. They go on not to be frequent fliers in the criminal justice system. It’s just easy to get in trouble when you’re that age.”
Pahl’s statement was backed up by David Rettew, who teaches adolescent psychiatry at the University of Vermont Medical School — though he quibbled with whether a 22-year-old’s decisions are “exactly” like those of a 13-year-old.
“There is a tremendous amount of brain growth that happens in adolescence,” he said.
During adolescence, the parts of the brain that react to immediate gratification are stronger than the parts dealing with planning and careful consideration, which develop more slowly. Rettew said that in recent years, a scientific consensus has emerged that this discrepancy persists longer than previously understood.
“A lot of neuroscientists will say that part of the brain isn’t fully online until your mid-20s,” he said. “I would say many people who are prone to making risky or poor decisions in adolescence and early adulthood will be very different when they get older.”
Many, he said, but not all.
“You can’t predict who is going to be in one camp or another,” he said.
Rettew said that while scientists have come to agree that neurological adolescence continues past legal adulthood, there is no clear age at which it is agreed development has concluded.
“None of this is an all-or-none process,” he said. “For most people, it’s a slow progression toward development. Where to draw the line gets complicated. The legal world tends to be binary.”
Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said that however similar their brains are, people over 18 differ from those under that age in how they fit into society. Juveniles, he said, are presumably either living with a parent or guardian, or in the custody of the Department for Children and Families.
“What that tells us is these individuals have some built-in supports that are not necessarily available to 18- to 22-year-olds,” he said.
Aside from that, he said putting older offenders in the juvenile system widens the already-stretched range of demographics social workers are called on to serve.
“The skill set to work with a 19-year-old sex offender is different from the skill set to work with a family that has a 6-year-old in the household,” he said. “I think we’re asking too much of these individuals.”
Pahl said youthful offenders are not getting off as easily as some in the public might think.
“That is, without a doubt, one of the most restrictive and intensive supervision statuses we have,” he said. “It’s often treated as a hybrid between the juvenile and adult statuses, but it really is an adult status. ... I often find myself recommending to clients and our attorneys that they do not seek youthful offender status.”
Pahl said that while eligibility for most programming in the criminal justice system is based on the individual’s charges and sentence, youthful offenders must be found to be individually suited for the program. Pahl said that behavior and progress through rehabilitation programs is tightly monitored for youthful offenders and the status can be revoked.
“You don’t have to go out and commit more crimes to fail,” he said. “You can be doing well, but if you’re not doing well fast enough, that can be a failure.”
Youthful offenders are required to plead guilty, Pahl said, and if they lose their status, they face an open sentencing.
“One hundred percent of plea bargains involve some limit on sentencing,” Pahl said. “When you go youthful offender, you lose that. It’s a high-stakes gamble for clients. ...The only other people subject to open sentencing are those who take their case to trial and lose.”
Pahl said he did not have readily available figures on the program’s success and failure rates due to the change in eligibility last year.
“There’s a different population of kids getting youthful offender status now,” he said. “I think we’ll know what the failure rate is in a few years. ... Twenty-year-old kids are 20-year-old kids. They do dumb stuff. There’ll be failures for sure.”
Another wrinkle is the fact that while offenders are required to admit their guilt, some enter the program still insisting on their innocence. Pahl said this happens most frequently with sex offense charges.
“People often plead guilty to things that they are not guilty of just because they want to avoid collateral consequences,” he said. “It makes them almost 100 percent guaranteed to fail at programming and then they wind up getting sentenced.”
Pahl said he has seen multiple instances of this happening, though he was unable to discuss specific cases.
Those who make it through, he said, usually go on to be law-abiding members of society.
“They’re not going to be the same people that they were when they get older,” he said. “It’s virtually impossible to get through adolescence without breaking the law. It’s more a question of who’s going to get caught and prosecuted.”
Thibault said he supports the concept of treating younger offenders differently, and that his office has referred 65 defendants to the youthful offender program on its own initiative.
“A lot of these cases are cases you’d think of as kids being kids — unlawful mischief, simple assault, retail theft,” he said.
However, Thibault said crimes of violence, especially those resulting in injury or some other trauma, require more careful consideration.
“These are cases where it can be difficult to sign on that juvenile services has the tools to deal with the issues and address the harm,” he said.
Thibault said he found allowing sexual assaults to disappear from public view into the juvenile system particularly problematic, especially given the attention in recent years to the issue of sexual assault on college campuses and that most college students would classify as youthful offenders.
“I don’t think we’re inspiring confidence in these victims,” he said. “Obscuring these cases from the public eye may not be for the best when there are people who pose some threat to the public.”
Thibault said the proposed rewrite of the law still includes some blind spots, such as not covering attempted rape or murder.
“These aren’t just conceptual fears,” he said. “Those are real cases that we, unfortunately, do see.”
Thibault said his ideal rewrite would also wall off offenses like violating an abuse prevention order or misdemeanor domestic assault, and while he would not outright refuse such defendants youthful offender status, he would subject the requests to greater scrutiny. He also said that when a defendant in his or her early 20s deserves a second chance at a clean slate, there are already options like deferred sentencing to give it to them.
“We have a lot of conventional tools in the criminal justice system that allow us to reach positive outcomes ... in a way that is transparent to the public and inclusive of the victims,” he said.
With “overwhelming” support at the polls for the budgets it put forward, the Select Board is looking forward to completing several projects in the coming year.
“Now that the election is over, and overwhelmingly the town residents supported all the municipal budgets, we’ve reorganized our board and it’s time now we put our focuses, our objectives, and our goals at the forefront so we can organize and make sure we’re pushing the ball down the field,” said Select Board Chairman Joshua Terenzini in an interview on Monday.
He said most people on the five-member board have been there for several terms now and have learned to work well as a team. He and other town officials expect progress to be made this year in several areas.
Terenzini said Selectwoman Mary Ashcroft is spearheading the efforts to spruce up the Mead Falls Park, a recreation area near the Rutland Center Fire Station.
“It’s a beautiful area where the falls come in, and there’s fishing, and recreation, and it’s really hidden right now because of the overgrowth of trees and brush,” said Terenzini, “so we’re going to partner with Green Mountain Power and Mark Youngstrom, a local engineer, he’s volunteered his time and services.”
The park is near a functioning hydroelectric dam owned by Green Mountain Power. Terenzini said the town hasn’t budgeted much for this project, as a great deal of the labor involved is being donated.
Dewey Field, off East Proctor Road, is also set for some upgrades, said Terenzini.
“We are going to be resurfacing the basketball and tennis courts, reconfiguring the tennis courts some, and then also putting in additional parking to get some more cars off the road,” he said. “We budgeted $40,000 between Recreation and Highway to do this project. It’s weather sensitive, we’re just waiting for the weather to break for us.”
Northwood Park will also be getting some attention this year, said Terenzini.
“We had the successful timber sale this past winter, which helped us repurpose some of the trees, it also helped cleanup and make the part that much more safe and more beautiful,” said Terenzini. (Recreation Director) Mike Rowe and the recreation team are going to add more trails to our already pretty elaborate trail system. Things like disc golf are going to be added this summer. We’re also going to add better signage for the trail system.”
He said the timber sale netted $47,000, a little over half of which went to Rutland Town School with the rest going to the town coffers earmarked specifically for Northwood Park improvements.
The Town Office has been under a five-year renovation plan, with past work being done on the administrative assistant to the Select Board’s office, the Police Department office, and the exterior.
“This year it’s going to be the Town Clerk and Treasurer’s Office, which is probably going to be the largest renovation project this office is going to see,” said Terenzini. “We budgeted somewhere around $65,000 for that, just for that project. In that, (Town Clerk Kirsten Hathaway) and (Administrative Assistant to the Select Board Bill Sweet) have done a nice job with preliminary designs with what they think should happen over there.”
He said improved safety is the main concern for the redesign.
“We’re trying to keep it as much the way it is now that we can, with a few safety upgrades and bring it into the 21st century,” said Hathaway on Monday. She said what’s now the door into the office will be replaced by an open archway. The existing counters will be moved up, and a door will allow employees access to the inner office. Glass will separate office workers from the public.
“There’s a certain kind of sheeting you can get that makes it more like safety glass, so if somebody hit it or whatever it wouldn’t crumble in on us or that kind of stuff. We’re not going to do what the Social Security Administration had downtown, but we want it to be a little bit safer,” she said.
Another facility upgrade Terenzini thinks will go over well with townsfolk is the roof extension planned for the transfer station.
“It sounds boring, but it’s really exciting,” he said. “When the transfer station was built, they did a fabulous job of building it, except where you pull through, get out of your car, and throw the trash into the compactor, there’s no roof there for you.”
The planned upgrade will extend the roof over the compactor so when people throw material into it they’ll be protected from the elements, he said.
Terenzini said the board is also looking ahead at hiring a new police officer, purchasing a new utility truck for the fire department — Which will replacing a 1992 pickup truck — and keeping on top of “nuisance” properties. He the board plans to talk more about its priorities at an upcoming meeting.
Selectman Joe Denardo said in a phone interview Monday he would like to see a water main installed on Randbury Road, the lack of which he feels is holding back businesses development there. Denardo said the town could also do more with regards to solar development.
A Green Mountain College student said he was stressed out and joking when he declared his intent to “shoot up” the school.
Aaron Sanchez, 20, pleaded not guilty Monday in Rutland criminal court to a single misdemeanor charge of criminal threatening. If convicted, he could face up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. He was freed on the conditions he stay away from the witnesses in the case and that he not go within 100 feet of the college.
Vermont State Police said they were contacted about Sanchez’s comments on the morning of March 5. A friend of Sanchez told police she had been studying with a friend in her room when Sanchez came by and she invited him in. The student told police Sanchez declared he was “done with this place,” that he would “shoot up the school” and that he was “out to get” GMC President Robert Allen and Provost Thomas Mauhs-Pugh. She also said Sanchez directed a threat at her friend.
The student told police that she had known Sanchez for two years and had never seen him angry, and that she believed he would actually do it. She said she later heard him making similar comments to other students.
Another student gave police a similar account, according to affidavits, though she said she initially thought Sanchez was joking. As Sanchez continued — the second student told police he made comments about knowing where her dorm room was and cutting her hair with a knife — she told police she became increasingly scared and was nervous about sleeping in her room that night.
Police said Sanchez agreed to an interview in which he was apologetic and crying off and on. He said he had just finished a stressful day and was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work he had due, and was also worried about the school’s imminent closure. He said his comments were all jokes and that he did not have access to any firearms. He consented to searches of his vehicle and dorm room, according to police.
Police said they found “nothing of interest” in either location.
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