Should Burlington make disruptive behavior in downtown criminal?

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BURLINGTON, Vt. Residents and business owners have come to Queen City leaders fed up with bad behavior in downtown Burlington.

City Councilor Kurt Wright wants there to be stricter consequences for offenses.

"Issues like public drunkenness, public urination, harassment, open container laws, all of those quality of life type issues," said Wright, R-Burlington.

Right now if people get in trouble for these violations, they get a ticket. Wright is asking the City Council to consider upping the behavior from a civil offense to a misdemeanor for repeat offenders. 

"For there to be consequences for people who just want to hang out on the street, drink, get drunk, cause trouble, and engage in bad and sometimes violent behavior," said Wright.

Police Chief Brandon del Pozo is on board with the idea.

"There are folks for whom the civil process is not a disincentive to change their behavior. They don't respond to tickets, often dozens and dozens of tickets. We need something else," said del Pozo.

If the Council gives the proposal the green light, a committee would determine which offenses would be included and how many repeat violations would make it a crime.

But not everybody thinks this option is the way to make the streets of Burlington safe. We spoke with Tom Dalton, the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. He thinks the key is providing resources to those who have mental illness or who are homeless.

"That's what's going to remove them from the situation and reduce the difficult behaviors that people in the community are experiencing. It's the compassionate thing to do," said Dalton.

Dalton worked in social services at the Howard Center for 17 years. He doesn't think harsher penalties will eliminate the problem.

"They're not going to show up to court because they don't have the mental health resources to make that type of thing happen. And then they're just going to get a warrant out for them and then they're going to become incarcerated and the jails are already full of people that are mentally ill," said Dalton.

Del Pozo agrees providing resources is important, but does think a new tool is necessary for more immediate change.

"We want to avert this crisis, not just keep reacting to it. And I think criminal deterrence will reach a certain part of the population that's not being reached right now," said del Pozo.

Burlington already has an ordinance that makes repeat noise violations criminal. The City Council will vote on whether to move forward with the idea at its next meeting Aug. 28.