State’s attorney says Vermont needs to get serious about habitual offenders

Published: Dec. 17, 2020 at 4:40 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 23, 2020 at 4:25 PM EST
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GRAND ISLE, Vt. (WCAX) - Is Vermont’s criminal justice system too easy on repeat offenders? One state’s attorney says more can be done to keep the public safe, and points to a law already on the books.

Storm Choiniere was sentenced as a habitual offender after a two-day trial at the Grand Isle County Courthouse back in August. In October, he was released on furlough after serving most of his time waiting for sentencing. Last month, he was back in court again, leaving Grand Isle County State’s Attorney Doug DiSabito frustrated.

“I get the press release, I see the name and I was just stunned,” he said.

Stunned but not surprised to see that the repeat offender was back behind bars after police say he impersonated a game warden, broke into a home and assaulted a man.

DiSabito says it’s not just this one case. He says he sees multiple repeat offenders in the courtroom.

“My job is to enforce the laws and keep the public safe, and when you have someone who is continuing to break the law on a felony basis again-- five felonies, six felonies-- it needs to stop,” he said.

DiSabito says repeat offenders can be stopped under the state’s habitual offender law, which allows criminals convicted of more than three felonies to get up to life in prison. But he says judges are not handing out those stiffer sentences.

“If the enhanced penalty of the habitual offender doesn’t mean anything, it’s not going to have any type-- general or specific--deterrence, and I want that to change,” he said.

“It’s a leftover fossil of the early 1990s,” said Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio.

He says the law is outdated and not in keeping with today’s corrections philosophy of rehabilitation.

“The thought was to deter crime by getting very tough on it, which didn’t work at all and just ballooned the prison population with youthful offenders,” Valerio said.

“I like to say, and I often think, that every case is unique to its facts,” said Rep. Ben Joseph, D-Grand Isle, a retired Vermont Superior Court judge who was willing to hand out stiffer sentences to repeat offenders.

Joseph acknowledges the need to move away from costly and ineffective high incarceration rates but believes judges should always have the discretion to apply the habitual offender law.

“What the law says is the nature and the circumstances and the criminal history-- those things have to be considered and whether you decided to invoke some mandatory sentence,” he said.

DiSabito says he hopes judges will exercise that discretion in the name of justice.

“My fear is the safety of the public,” he said.

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