Starting today 1,200 new sex offenders will be part of the Vermont sex offender registry. The addition is just part of the massive statewide reform effort that came about in the wake of Brooke Bennett's murder. Word that Bennett's suspected killer is also a convicted sex offender who was released from probation early, prompted calls for immediate review of Vermont laws.
In early 2009 the legislature passed two reform bills that establish special investigative units in every county, ramp up the state's sex crimes prevention efforts, require more people to add their names to the registry, and provide the public more information on the registry.
"It's a generational transformation in the way Vermont approaches sex offenders," said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who also chair Senate Judiciary Committee. "There was a tendency when the murder first occurred, and when Michael Jacques was first arrested, there was a tendency I think to overreact. The public called for very strong laws and we provided those, but I think we did it in a very thoughtful manner."
Two men have already been charged under Brooke's Law; the portion of the reform bill that includes 25-year mandatory minimum sentences for sex crimes against children.
The bills have also resulted in more sex offenders behind bars. In June of 2008 there were 430 sex offenders in Vermont jails. In May of this year there were 487. That's 57 more offenders and 19 of those are new cases. The others are being held longer or have been picked up for violating their terms of release.
Bennett's murder has also lead to internal reform at the Department of Corrections. DOC Commissioner, Andrew Pallito, admits the department missed warning signs about Bennett's accused killer. Michael Jacques was released from probation early in 2004, after serving time for a 1992 kidnapping and rape.
"There were a couple of points where I think that the department of corrections should have intersected a lot sooner and we didn't," said the Commissioner.
The DOC has since established a central office committee that will review all sex offender cases for any offender who is changing status and will make sure all probation offices are following policies and directives. A state audit is also underway to review those policies and directives to make sure they are consistent with best practices.
"I think one of the things we learned in the Brooke Bennett case is that there are some inconsistencies from field office to field office," said Pallito.
Senator Sears says the state still has work to do, especially to make sure the new sex offender registry is ready for its October first unveiling.
"But I think over the next two years Vermonters will see a huge change," he said.
Corrections officers are updating their training to better identify children who have direct contact with sex offenders and may be at risk. That comes in response to a charge that Jacques was also abusing a young child he lived with for years.
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