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Is Vermont's habitual offender law keeping you safe? - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Is Vermont's habitual offender law keeping you safe?

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

Taxpayers will shell out somewhere between $1.8 and $3.1 million for someone serving life, which is the maximum penalty for a habitual offender. WCAX News wanted to know how many Vermont criminals fall into this category. What our investigation uncovered is a major breakdown in the system.

They are some of Vermont's most notorious career criminals.

"He is not entitled nor is he deserving of one more chance," Chittenden Deputy Prosecutor Nicole Andreson said in 2005.

Robert Rideout repeatedly molested a child. That's after he spent 22 years in prison for other crimes.

"What happened to Sarah that night was not my fault," said Robert Jones in 2006 

Jones had 12 felonies under his belt before he was convicted of beating his girlfriend to death.

"The kids won't ever have a mother," said Gail Smith, the victim's mother in 2006. 

"These are the folks who prisons were designed for," said Sen Dick Sears, D-Bennington County. 

Sears rewrote the law on habitual offenders 21 years ago. 

"The era was somewhat different. It was more of a law and order era," said Sears. 

States across the country were getting tough on crime.

"Numbers show violent offenders are doing an average seven years for a third violent offense," said Sen. Susan Sweetser, R-Chittenden County, in 1995. 

So, Senators Sears and Sweetser wrote the so-called, "Three Strikes Bill," greenlighting potential life sentences for criminals convicted of a fourth felony.

"I don't think we as a community have to wait for you to actually kill somebody in order to put you away in a place where you can't hurt anybody," Vermont Judge Michael Kupersmith said in 2006. 

The idea was to throw away the key for violent criminals like cocaine kingpin Stanley Mayo, who nearly killed a man a dozen years ago. 

"It was never designed for a large number of people," said Sears. 

Eric Edson holds the record for nonviolent convictions. He has 40 felonies since 1987. Finally, a judge had enough and sentenced him as a habitual offender.

"Nothing's going to change this man. It's what he is," said Judge Ben Joseph, Vt. Superior Court.  

But it's guys like Edson that Sears never intended to lock up for life. He says the law was supposed to be reserved for those guilty of the "Big 12," heinous crimes like murder, manslaughter, maiming, kidnapping, arson, aggravated assault, sex crimes and child molestation.

He's now a big proponent of justice reform, rehabilitation and keeping nonviolent offenders out of lockup. He says overcharging criminals is a problem.

"If it's being used on nonviolent offenders in some way then that is a misuse of the intent of the law from 1995," said Sears. 

WCAX wanted to find out if career criminals are getting more prison time or if prosecutors are using the law as leverage.

Kenneth Bailey set fire to his ex-wife's apartment in the '90s. He also has convictions for burglary, kidnapping, assault and child sex abuse. WCAX found out his habitual offender status was dropped as part of a 1996 plea agreement.

So is this law working and is it actually keeping your family any safer?

"There's nobody in state government that's keeping track of this," said John Campbell, head of the state's attorney's office. 

WCAX went to the state's attorney's executive director, the court administrator, the crime research group and the Department of Corrections to try to get you answers. No one in state government can definitively or accurately tell us how many criminals in Vermont have the habitual offender penalty enhancement.

The DOC's best guess is 13 but says that number is likely too low. Eight of those criminals are behind bars, two are awaiting trial and three are out on probation, parole or furlough.

Reporter Jennifer Costa: How do you know if it's being overused, underused if we don't know how many people are actually charged or enhanced as habitual offenders? 

Campbell: That's a fair question and one where I don't have the answer to. 

Campbell says his office and the state need to do a better job. Since our interview, he tells WCAX he's trying to figure out how the department of state's attorneys can keep tabs on these criminals. Replacing the case management system is expensive, but so is incarcerating individuals for decades with no measurable proof it's protecting our communities or deterring future crime.

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