BARRE — While organizations like the Vermont chapter of the ACLU are calling for fewer people behind bars, the public perception appears to be that the state is running a “catch-and-release” criminal justice system.
Last weekend, police announced they had arrested two Massachusetts men on drug charges.
Eric A. Vasquez, 26, and Alex Xavier Rodriguez, 23, both of Springfield, Massachusetts, were charged with felony counts of heroin trafficking and possession of marijuana. They both pleaded not guilty to the charges Monday.
Police said Vasquez and Rodriguez had large amounts of heroin and marijuana on them. A witness told police he or she had seen Vasquez with a large amount of heroin and witnessed him selling the drug to people.
Both men were ordered held on $25,000 bail and it appears Rodriguez has posted that bail because he is no longer listed in the Department of Corrections database as being in custody. Vasquez remains in custody.
The case drew criticism from the public because Vasquez was supposed to be on probation after pleading guilty in March to a felony count of heroin possession and a misdemeanor count of giving false information to law enforcement. Vasquez was sentenced to two to five years, all suspended except for eight months with credit for time served. After Vasquez was released from prison in March he never met with his probation officer, according to court records.
Those on social media and leaving comments on news stories about the case said the state is running a “catch-and-release” system where offenders get light sentences or released on conditions for serious crimes.
One user on the Vermont subreddit, a page on the online platform Reddit dedicated to the state, said in part, “Drugs should be legal, so that (expletives) like this aren’t the ones selling them, among other reasons. But until then, we can’t keep doing this catch-and-release (expletive).”
These comments come on the heels of a report from the Vermont chapter of the ACLU proposing reforms to the criminal justice system that would reduce by hundreds the number of those incarcerated. Officials consistently bring up the crowded state of Vermont’s prisons. Also, Vermont houses more than 200 inmates in a for-profit prison in Mississippi.
Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said the two most frequent complaints his office receives are people who are confused or upset about someone being charged with a serious crime getting released on conditions and people assuming putting someone on probation is a “slap on the wrist.”
“I think that there’s still many people who don’t feel comfortable with the system as it’s evolved and stepped away from incarceration. That friction is not easily overcome. I think the confidence in the system comes from seeing actual change in behavior. From seeing increases in public safety,” Thibault said.
Beside reforms to the criminal justice system, he said sometimes an offender receives what some may see as a light sentence in a case because witnesses or the victim aren’t willing to cooperate or issues with the evidence may be discovered as the case progresses.
“Just because charges are filed does not mean we are sitting on a perfect case or an absolute recitation of the facts. In many cases, the high-water mark for the strength of the case is the day of arraignment and from there it only gets worse as memories fade or defense counsel begins discovery on behalf of their clients and begin bringing facts or evidence that maybe were not available at the time of charging,” he said.
Thibault said when dealing with cases, his office strives for accountability from the offender, reduction of risk for the community and victim input and victim safety. He said victims don’t always agree with a certain sentence, but his office tries to explain as best it can why that sentence is appropriate.
Robert Sand is the founding director of the Center for Justice Reform at the Vermont Law School. Sand also served for 15 years as the state’s attorney in Windsor County.
He said the language of the criminal justice system historically has revolved around punishment.
“That’s what we think about when we think about consequences in our justice system. Since language informs thinking, that influences how people think about what outcomes should be like. Until we learn a new dialogue about different responses in the criminal justice system, there are going to be people, maybe a considerable number of people, who think ‘Oh, that punishment wasn’t enough,’” he said.
Sand said part of that comes from what the goals are of the criminal justice system. He said if the goals of the system are enhanced public safety, accountability and repairing harm, sending people to prison doesn’t accomplish that.
“Sending people to jail increases the likelihood that they’re going to go to jail again. So there are groups, well beyond the ACLU, including people in the Legislature, who recognize that incarcerating people is not an effective way to create an overall or net enhancement in public safety,” Sand said.
For those who get upset about someone being released on conditions instead of held on bail, he said there is a presumption of innocence until proven guilty in the U.S. He said people sometimes lose sight of that.
“People effectively get tried by virtue of charges being filed even though they are still presumed innocent,” he said.
Sand said inflicting harm, in this case putting someone behind bars, for inflicting harm is a counterproductive response. He said someone harms someone else and the way we teach them that’s wrong is to harm them.
“That’s fundamentally irrational,” he said, adding there are certain cases where someone does need to go to prison in order to protect the public.
Sand said who the accused offender is also matters in terms of perception. He said when he was state’s attorney some of the toughest “law and order” police officers he dealt with would sometimes call him up to ask for leniency for a family member or a friend charged with a crime.
“Once it was one of us, take it easy. Once it’s somebody else, that’s when you bring the hammer down,” he said.
As for the “catch-and-release” phrase, Sand said that comes from fishing where fish are caught and thrown back into the water to preserve and not harm the species. He said excessive incarceration harms humanity.