Primary Preview: Meet the candidates for Chittenden County State’s Attorney
BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - It’s a heated primary, that has rare attention. State’s attorneys in Vermont historically stay on the job for more than one, four-year term, and often don’t have serious primary challengers. A county’s state’s attorney has no direct oversight and can make their own policies. In Chittenden County, policies and public safety are the sticking points in the Democratic primary. Ted Kenney from Williston is seeking his party’s nomination, against incumbent Sarah George.
Kenney, a former defense attorney, turned division chief in the Vermont Attorney General’s office, left his job earlier this year to begin a campaign. He’s now trying to walk the line, balancing a tough, but not too tough-on-crime approach. He says first responders and others from across the political spectrum pushed him to make a run for state’s attorney.
“They were all basically telling me the same thing, that they thought things were bad, that we were headed in the wrong direction,” Kenney said. “I agreed that I think things are headed in the wrong direction and the policies need to change.”
Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George was appointed by Governor Phil Scott in 2017, after T.J. Donovan was elected Attorney General. George was elected to serve in the role in 2018. Since taking office, she has taken a progressive approach to the position, working to reshape the legal system, and implement what she calls evidence-based policies, that work to keep the community safe. She says there’s more work to do and is fighting back against claims she’s part of the problem. “I’ve been the one doing that work. It makes since for me to be the one that continues it,” George said. Both George and Kenney believe in criminal justice reform, but Kenney says George is going too far.
George has been at the forefront of advocating for change in the system. She’s been recognized nationally for her reform efforts, like when she directed her prosecutors to stop asking for cash bail, and for implementing a policy that declines to prosecute for misdemeanor buprenorphine possession. The goal has been to keep cases out of the system, and get more people the help they need.
Despite her efforts to reduce the number of cases going, which she says has received praise inside the judicial system, Kenney is calling for more cases to be heard and is trying to capitalize on a perceived feeling that Burlington is less safe, “I think that there is a problem and I think people’s perceptions are accurate,” he said.
“It’s easy for him to say, ‘She’s not doing this,’ or ‘She’s not doing that,’ The reality is very different,” George said. She says that the courts are overloaded.
Vermont’s Judicial Emergency, which closed courts at the onset of the pandemic and now limits in-person hearings, was extended through August. Courtrooms have capacity rules, masks are on, and most hearings are still virtual. Courts are also short-staffed, and so is George’s office. She says that’s making it difficult to get through the docket, and adds to the pile of paperwork. “Everyone in the system is drowning right now,” George said. “Even with all of the work we’ve done to limit the number of cases coming in, the court expects we are still 9 months out from getting caught up, and that’s without more cases coming in.”
Kenney agrees that “justice delayed is justice denied” but says court backlogs are nothing new. “The judicial system is going to have to make some modifications to deal with the influx. They have before and they can again,” he said. If elected, Kenney wants to review more cases and possibly take on more too. He cites quality-of-life crimes and lower-level retail thefts that are typically diverted away from the courts as examples of cases to review further. He says he would impose stricter conditions of release to deter repeat offenders.
“People are being caught and then they’re not given conditions of release that would restrain them from doing more criminal activity. And they engage in more criminal activity and they get basically the same conditions of release, even though they essentially violated a court order,” Kenney said.
George questions if more cases on the calendar are the answer when there are already 421 retail theft cases pending right now. “Is that really serving the public any good, by charging those cases and letting them sit for two years?” she said. Some lower-level crimes are never heard by a judge because either the prosecutor declines to prosecute or the cases are sent immediately to the restorative justice process. It’s a process George has put a lot of focus on since she was appointed in 2017. She points to statistics that show victims are more satisfied with the outcome and offenders are less likely to re-offend. She says the process allows for the accused to be held accountable the way the victim wants and to come up with a joint solution.
But Kenney says that practice isn’t for everyone and that some offenders -- including repeat offenders -- are getting off easy. He is calling for stricter consequences. “I don’t believe that the vast majority of the people in the system are evil or need to be just thrown in jail or something,” Kenney said. “The difficulty is that a lot of cases that should not be sent to restorative justice right now are being sent.”
George says her office reviews cases and tries to find alternatives to address the underlying problem, which is typically substance abuse or homelessness. In some cases, her office can make the referral to restorative justice, but she says it’s the police who do the majority of referrals. “I do not have a policy about what cases get sent to restorative justice,” she said. Police send some cases directly to community justice centers, including simple assault, disorderly conduct, possession of stolen property, and even retail theft under $300. Every department is different and can have different agreements with its local community justice center.
If there’s a direct referral from the police, George and her deputies may never see the case. At the onset of the pandemic, she sent an e-mail to departments urging them to take advantage of their CJC’s because her office couldn’t handle all of the cases. “It wasn’t a directive. I don’t control the police. They can still do whatever they want,” George said.
The two also don’t see eye to eye on George’s traffic stop policy introduced earlier this year. She says so-called non-public safety traffic stops, like having a taillight out or having a suspended registration, are driving racial disparities in traffic stops and are used to fish for other crimes. Her office will still look at charges related to those stops but may decline to prosecute.
Police data shows racial disparities exist in traffic stops statewide, but in Burlington, traffic stops have drastically declined over the years, from 6,000 10 years ago to only about 700 last year. That’s helped close the disparity gap and helped lower overall crime statistics in the Queen City.
Kenney acknowledges the racial element in these types of traffic stops and says police need more training. But overall, he believes the policy hampers public safety. “We have to find another way to address what the goal is,” he said.
George disagrees. “It’s really easy for white people to say, ‘This is safety, this is a good thing, we should be encouraging this,’ when Black and brown people in our state are feeling incredibly targeted, and the data shows they are being targeted. They’re feeling incredibly unsafe being pulled over,” she said.
Beyond policy, public safety is another key element of the primary. Is Burlington, the epicenter of the safety debate, actually less safe than it used to be? According to the Burlington Police annual report, total offenses where a crime occurred have actually dropped consistently since 2012. Violent offenses are also at their lowest point in the last 10 years.
Priority 1 incidents, urgent calls where police say a crime may or may not have been committed, did rise significantly in 2021. Gunfire in the Queen City is up, too, with 15 incidents recorded this year alone. That’s where someone isn’t necessarily shot, but there’s evidence of a shooting.
George argues crime is up everywhere, in Vermont and nationally. “This is not a Burlington issue or a Chittenden County issue,” she said. She adds that since the majority of gunfire cases in Burlington have not been solved, they have not been sent to her office for prosecution. She also says it’s a small group of people involved in the incidents.
Kenney was endorsed in this race by four Chittenden County police unions, all of whom have worked with George since she was appointed. She believes it’s a conflict for a state’s attorney to seek or accept endorsements from police unions when a large part of the job is holding police accountable. “Although it is also not surprising to me that some of the police unions of Chittenden County and the Fraternal Order of Police would endorse my opponent, I do worry that he is making false promises to them based on his experiences in our courthouse years ago, rather than the reality of the situation we are faced with currently,” George said in a written statement.
Kenney said while he accepts the endorsements, he won’t be doing the police’s bidding. “To be clear, I will never be the ‘firefighter union’s candidate,’ or ‘EMT union’s candidate,’ or the ‘police union’s candidate.’ These women and men made no demands and sought no promises from me other than that I make good faith efforts to collaborate with them and to hear them out. And I made no other commitments,” Kenney said in a statement.
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