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Vt. corrections officials working to address pandemic court delays

Published: Dec. 11, 2020 at 5:48 PM EST
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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) - A collaboration between Vermont corrections officials, the courts, and attorneys could provide some solutions to justice system delays caused by the pandemic.

“The reason why this has become a problem is because of the way we are accepting people into our system,” said Vt. Corrections Commissioner James Baker.

He says the Springfield prison is the only facility being used as a detention center for the southern part of the state. That means four counties worth of attorneys are calling the prison at once, all trying to speak with their clients before arraignments.

“I got an email this week where an attorney talked about making 67 calls between the start of business and 7 at night and was not able to get through,” said Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio.

Springfield is better technologically equipped than most facilities and has multiple phone lines compared to others, which may only have one. “That’s a real problem and we know it’s a problem,” Baker said.

Valerio points out that mental health evaluations are done before arraignments to determine if rehab would be better than prison, but without physically seeing the client, the process is delayed. A short-term solution allows defendants to use tablets so they can call their attorney directly. “That is the plan and I think it is going to help,” Valerio said.

Transportation is another problem that can lead to delays. If someone from Bennington is arrested and brought to Springfield with no way to get home, Valerio says it causes issues. “It’s a nightmare, because things go so long with the arraignments,” he said. People are given a bus ticket and depending on the time they are released, have to figure out how to get through the night until the next bus in the morning.

Commissioner Baker says they had been providing transportation up until a few weeks ago when they had staffing issues. “It’s COVID. It’s because we diverted people to do other work, the timing of the arraignments, how late in the day it is. It’s at the end of their shift -- trying to get people may be to stay over. It’s been challenging,” Baker admitted.

He says they are working on a solution with the Windham County Sherriff’s Department and if all goes well, it will be implemented throughout southern Vermont.

Attorneys can visit their client in person in a Vermont prison unless there is a COVID case inside. Springfield is COVID free right now, but attorneys are not entering anyway to comply with the governor’s guidance to remotely conduct business.

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