On Tuesday April 6 at 7 p.m., the city council will be hosting a community meeting at the Barre Opera House to discuss S.292, a bill pending in the Vermont House of Representatives. Among other things, S.292 proposes to reduce the number of incarcerated offenders by broadening the criteria for release eligibility.
It's important to me that Montpelier hears directly from those who will be most affected by S.292. To that end, I have invited Gov. Douglas, Lt. Gov. Dubie, Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito, Secretary of Human Services Rob Hoffman, Rep. Shap Smith, Sen. Peter Shumlin Senator Dick Spears, Rep. Alice Emmons, Sen. Ann Cummings, Sen. William Doyle, Sen. Phil Scott, Rep. Pat MacDonald, Rep. Paul Poirier and Rep. Tess Taylor to attend and participate in the discussion. Most importantly, I am asking for your attendance and participation.
Prior to the meeting, I am encouraging everyone to read the full text of the bill. It can be found on the Vermont Legislature web page at leg.state.vt.us.
As your mayor, I have strong objections to the passage of S.292 as proposed. I have particular objection to Section 5 of the bill, entitled Discharge From The Custody Of The Department Of Corrections.
S.292, which was fast-tracked in the Senate and is on an even faster track in the House of Representatives, proposes some of the most sweeping corrections policy changes in decades with virtually no discussion of the consequences or inclusion of the affected municipalities. It is an ill-conceived attempt to solve the fiscal problems of the department of corrections and the state of Vermont simply by lowering the bar for offender release. There's no mention of the criteria for release from a public safety perspective. There's no mention of a requirement of a positive recommendation from a case worker. Public safety is not even mentioned in this bill. Not once.
If this is effective public policy, perhaps we should try it in other areas of government. If we're concerned about our education test scores, why don't we simply lower the minimum requirements? If we're concerned about the number of deficient bridges, why don't we simply lower the standard that determines them to be safe? The answer is self evident. Minimum standards exist for a reason. They are in place to set goals, establish priorities and promote public safety. Vermont shouldn't settle for or promote mediocrity at the expense of public safety.
Now think about the effect of Section 5. On July 1, 2010, virtually hundreds of offenders who were not eligible for release from prison or discharge from probation only one day prior will suddenly be eligible for release and discharge from parole. They don't have to earn their release. They don't have to prove rehabilitation. They don't need a recommendation from their case worker. They simply have to hope for the passage of S.292 as presented. The offender who broke into your home or vehicle? They're back on the streets. The offender who tried to sell drugs to your child through intimidation? They're back too. We couldn't rehabilitate them through incarceration, so we rehabilitated them through legislation. If this weren't so serious, it would be comical.
Many of you may think that S.292 is a "Barre problem." Think again. Barre will not, as a community, allow our current population of furloughees and parolees to increase as a result of S.292. We have said yes for far too long and allowed ourselves to be run over by ill-conceived and poorly planned release policies. No more. We are committed to doing whatever it takes to prevent S.292 from affecting our community. The mass exodus of offenders from Vermont prisons planned for July 1, 2010 will affect other communities for a change. Perhaps yours.
My objections and concerns should not be taken as a reflection of my attitude towards those who are currently on furlough and parole. As the fastest-aging state in the nation, Vermont cannot afford to throw away young lives. I strongly believe that those who are determined to put mistakes behind them and lead a productive, lawful life should be given an honest opportunity to do so. I simply refuse to define "honest opportunity" as packing furloughees and parolees like sardines into a few communities so we can monitor them more efficiently. It doesn't work for them, it's not working for Barre, and it's not working for Vermont. We need a meaningful jobs and training program for successful reintegration. We need meaningful community involvement for successful reintegration. We need to thoroughly evaluate an individual's desire to be successful. We need to honestly assess our problems. We shouldn't be lowering the bar. We should be raising it. We should let offenders know that they will be discharged and released when they adapt and conform to our community standards, not the other way around. Those who chose to take full advantage of rehabilitative opportunities, find a job and work towards a better community are welcome in Barre. Those who chose to continue an unproductive life or life of crime are not. It's just that simple.
Over the past four years, I have testified numerous times as an advocate of fair and equitable policies as they relate to the responsibility of municipalities to work with the department of corrections to successfully reintegrate offenders into our communities. I have promoted the fair and equitable distribution of offenders throughout all Vermont municipalities. Neither Winooski nor Rutland nor St. Albans nor Barre have a department of corrections. Vermont does. The offender placement policies should reflect that. Without a doubt, this is the most frustrating and difficult problem I have had to advocate for during my tenure as mayor. Simply put, I need your help.
I'm not sure of the effect that one mayor from Barre, Vt., can have in effecting reasonable public policy. I'm more confident of the effect that hundreds of community minded citizens can have in that regard. I would like very much to hear from those who value their quality of life and their safety. That's why I'm asking those who care about their community, its future and our safety to attend this meeting. If you attend no other meeting for the rest of the year, please attend this one. It's that important. Thank you.
Thomas Lauzon is mayor of Barre.MORE IN Commentary
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