Is Vermont’s criminal justice system working?

Updated: Jun. 7, 2021 at 5:47 PM EDT
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CHELSEA, Vt. (WCAX) - An alleged act of vigilante justice in Chelsea is highlighting the frustration residents there feel about ongoing crime in their community. But police, who are charged with preventing it, say they share in that frustration.

“The bottom line is we need to stop these people from creating more victims out there,” said Sheriff Bill Bohnyak.

Bohnyak has been the sheriff in Orange County for 14 years. His deputies patrol more than a dozen towns. They know them well, including those who are often causing problems.

“We’ve been dealing with Amanda since March 11th,” Bohnyak said.

He says Amanda Conant is just one example. The 30-year-old was recently arrested in connection which several burglaries in Central Vermont. Bohnyak says his department picked her up back in March with heroin and thousands of dollars in cash.

“Do we want to see people put in jail for their opioid addiction? No. But we want to make sure they get help,” he said.

But Bohnyak says the current system is not working. He says suspected criminals are often released as fast as they are arrested only to commit more crime. Under current law, only those accused of life offenses and acts of violence can have bail withheld and remain in jail pending their trials.

“They do not include other offenses like burglary or the theft of a motor vehicle... or grand larceny,” said Ward Goodenough.

Goodenough is the state’s attorney for Windsor County. He says Vermont’s pretrial bail laws are very specific.

“It is not something the court can impose to mitigate or to enhance public safety. It is only for the purpose of flight,” Goodenough said.

“Our criminal justice system really does need to focus on its truly violent offenders,” said Janssen Willhoit.

Willhoit is a former state representative and criminal defense attorney. He says with the state’s limited resources, it’s about finding the right balance between public safety and a system that allows criminals a second chance. That solution could lie at the local level.

“Having really constructive dialogs about how do we better provide the needs and resources for those who are in the throes of addiction, that are homeless, that are desperate so that they don’t feel like their only answer is to go rob somebody,” Willhoit said.

In Chelsea, police say Wayland Childs took matters into his own hands. He allegedly tracked down the man who broke into his business and held him at gunpoint until police arrived. That landed Childs, not the suspect, behind bars. Bohnyak fears it’s only a matter of time before incidents escalate.

“You say to yourself where is this going to end? Are they going to break into a place and someone is going to get hurt or they are going to get hurt,” he questioned.

As for Conant, she has since been arrested again for allegedly violating conditions. She appeared before a judge and was once again released.

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