Couple learns disturbing lesson about habitual offenders - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Couple learns disturbing lesson about habitual offenders

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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. -

"It's nothing you ever expect to ever happen to you," said Linda Zeno.

Zeno and her husband, Steve, have lived in their South Burlington home for three decades and always felt safe. Until an early morning break-in last month shattered their sense of security.

"She hollers that there's someone in the house. I jumped out of bed," Steve Zeno said.

Police say Leonard Holbrook, 36, was not only inside their home, but crouching next to the couple's bed. "When I got out of bed, if I had literally taken two steps this way, I would have touched this man," Linda said.

Steve tackled the intruder, pinning him to the ground until police arrived. "If someone comes in it's my house. It's not his," Steve said.

Holbrook is behind bars awaiting a hearing, but the Zenos say the damage is done. "Materials things, yeah they can be replaced. What can't be replaced is the loss of security. What can't be replaced is what he did. He forever changed our lives that night," Linda said.

Their terror flipped to frustration when Linda found Holbrook's criminal record. "Our prosecutors, our judges, our defense attorneys are letting these guys off," Linda said.

Holbrook has been charged with 28 crimes since 1994 -- 24 misdemeanors. Eight were dismissed. He pleaded guilty to 15 and no contest to another.  When it comes to felonies, his record reveals four felony charges -- two convictions and two dismissals. Land that doesn't even include the latest felony burglary charge.

"He really has been an unmitigated disaster, not only for himself, but for our community," said Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan.

Chittenden County prosecutor T.J. Donovan admits Holbrook has slipped through the legal cracks for nearly two decades, starting a life of crime at 16. "This is a failure of the system, myself included, everybody in this system because for over 20 years he continued to commit crime, often times petty crime, but crimes that should have raised enough red flags to have a meaningful response," Donovan said.

Donovan said the mission of the criminal justice system is to correct people's behavior by striking a balance between punishment and rehabilitation.

"This is part of the push and the pull between the administrative branch and the judicial branch -- is who's responsible? We work with what the court gives us," said Vt. Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito.

Corrections can keep criminals behind bars for their maximum sentence, but that's a challenge when lawmakers are pushing the department to cut costs.

"I just want to see our justice system start protecting the victims. Yeah, we're overcrowded in jails. I don't care. It's not a luxury hotel we're putting them in. Do the crime. Do the time," Linda Zeno said.

Reporter Jennifer Reading: What happened to three strikes and you're out?

Andy Pallito: "So three strike and you're out, or what Vermont calls the habitual offender law, only pertains to certain cases.

And Holbrook's isn't one of them. In Vermont someone with three felonies is eligible for up to life in prison on their fourth felony conviction. There are less than 10 inmates out of more than 2,100 currently incarcerated as habitual offenders.

"Before you make a decision about letting somebody out or dismissing the charges from the state, picture your family and what we went through," Linda said.

The Zenos say they're speaking out on behalf of all victims and they vow to refuse any plea deals that come their way.  

So what's the solution? Donovan says the criminal justice system needs to intervene early, determining the root cause of a teenager's criminal behavior and create programming that not only holds them accountable but gives them the necessary skills to succeed as a law abiding citizen.

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