Prosecutors called on to cut Vermont's prison population

Published: Apr. 15, 2020 at 6:22 PM EDT
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State's attorneys across Vermont are responding to calls to release prisoners during the pandemic. Last month, the population was reduced by nearly 15%. But now, detainees who have been charged with violent crimes are trying to get out. Our Dom Amato reports on what the courts are doing as they look at more serious cases.

"The slate for Washington County, we're looking at things like aggravated domestic assault, sex assault on a child, child exploitation crimes," Washington County State's Attorney Rory Thibault said.

Public safety is the priority as state prosecutors look to help reduce the state prison population.

"Mostly the people in Chittenden County that are held pretrial are held on hold without bail motions, so they're really our most violent offenses," Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah Geroge said.

After working through cases involving low-level offenders, the focus has shifted to prisoners waiting for trial. George says her office reviews every case and ensures victims have a say if they want to be involved.

"Every case is different," she said. "This is not an all of these cases should be or shouldn't be handled in a certain way."

The ACLU is just one of a handful of advocacy groups pushing for prisoners to be released. James Lyall of the group says keeping the community safe is key, but so is the health of prisoners.

"Right now, it's hard to think of many places that are worse to be in a pandemic than a prison," Lyall said.

Vermont's Health Department says it doesn't have the data to prove or disprove that the rates of infection are higher in Vermont prisons than out of prison.

Thibault says some typical reintegration plans for inmates aren't running at full capacity due to the pandemic and he fears some people being released end up in a worse situation.

"What I really worry that if someone is released to homelessness or a motel without having basic services set back up or transportation could be an even more unsafe situation," Thibault said.

Advocates and some attorneys agree and hope going forward, Vermont can continue to keep the number of people incarcerated to a minimum.

"Vermont can be smarter about how it runs its criminal justice system and it's showing that now through the work of state's attorneys and others and we want to see that continue," Lyall said.