By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito said on Monday he will consider re-establishing a Probation and Parole office in Middlebury, though he stressed such a move will depend on the state finding a low-cost — or preferably no-cost — space in the community.
“It’s going to take some creative thinking,” Pallito told a group of around 20 members of Addison County’s human services and judiciary community who showed up at a special meeting to restore a permanent Probation and Parole presence in the county.
“Taking existing space would be the best option,” he said.
The Department of Correction and the Douglas administration have drawn fire since late January, when the Middlebury Probation and Parole office left its rented space in the Carbro Building on Exchange Street — a casualty in a series of fiscal year 2009 budget cuts. The four probation/parole officers staffing the office were reassigned to Corrections offices in Rutland and Chittenden counties; an administrative assistant position within the office was eliminated.
Closing the office, according to Pallito, will save the state an estimated $100,000 annually. Of that sum, $60,000 is associated with the salary/benefits package for the administrative assistant; $10,000 in operating expenses; and around $30,000 in rent.
“In a perfect world, we would have unlimited resources,” Pallito said, in referring to the state’s current budget conundrum. “The reason we picked (the Middlebury office for closing) is because we thought we could do that without compromising public safety.”
Since the office closing, Probation and Parole officers have been staffing a room at the Frank Mahady Courthouse in Middlebury for two days a week. Their part-time presence in the county, according to corrections officials, is being supplemented by extra resources and “community correctional officials” from Rutland and Chittenden counties.
“Having these community correctional officers come down to Addison County is an enhancement (of supervision) in the off-hours,” said Jacqueline Kotkin, field services executive for the Department of Corrections.
“I think it is a bit of an understatement of our supervision capacity only to look at the two days a week that the court has allowed us to use their space,” she added.
Those assurances did little to assuage the concerns of local prosecutors and victims’ advocates, however.
“I am disappointed this wasn’t done in a more orderly fashion, with more input from people who were affected,” said Addison County State’s Attorney John Quinn. “When you take the probation officers out of this county, you’re removing the close connection we have with them and the easy communication we have with them.
“I am really upset by the way this happened,” he added.
Quinn and others at the meeting argued the elimination of the Middlebury Probation and Parole office has hampered the state’s ability to keep an eye on local offenders, some of whom are unable to travel to Rutland or Burlington to check in with corrections officials.
Addison County Deputy State’s Attorney Christopher Perkett said some defense attorneys are already using their clients’ inability to travel as arguments for more lenient release conditions.
“They are saying you can’t place people on probation because they can’t get to Burlington or they can’t get to Rutland,” Perkett said, adding he believes some offenders may try to use the lack of transportation as an excuse if they violate their probation or parole.
He echoed Quinn’s concerns about the decision having been made quickly and by forces outside of Addison County.
“This happened fast, this happened with very little county input,” Perkett said. “It seemed like you were taking one of the offices that was working at its best and punishing it for doing such a great job. We feel a lot less secure here knowing that we are being supervised out of Chittenden County.”
Melissa Deas, coordinator of Addison County’s Domestic Abuse Educational Program (DAEP), said having a local Probation and Parole office made her rehabilitative dealings with high-risk offenders much more effective.
“(Victims) are feeling unsafe,” said Deas, adding she has circulated a petition suggesting that the Probation and Parole office be established in the unused, lower level of the Frank Mahady Courthouse.
“I don’t have the probation officers here to solidly back me up,” Deas said. “We need them back.”
Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, agreed. Fisher, vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said the “reduced supervision” of offenders in Addison County will only have a negative impact on the community.
“You can’t supervise people as well when you don’t exist in the community,” Fisher said.
Pallito heard complaints not only from Addison County officials, but from residents who said their lives have been changed since the local Probation and Parole office closed.
A woman from southern Addison County, who wished to remain anonymous, said her daughter left her house recently after learning of the office closure. She explained her daughter no longer felt safe from the man who had abused her.
“When she heard that parole was leaving, she looked at my husband and I and said, ‘I am out of here,’” the woman said. “We had to find a home for her to live in where she felt safe, where she would get the quality of care we demanded.
“We are nickel and diming,” the woman added. “We need to remember that there are victims out there who are now walking around with eyes in the back of their heads.”
In the end, Pallito said he was willing to consider returning Probation and Parole to a permanent spot in Middlebury. Officials said those options could include appealing to the owners of the Carbro Building for a reduced rent; locating the office in the courthouse, where it could function essentially rent-free; or finding another suitable spot.
The state currently has an 18-month lease for its other offices in the Carbro Building. Guy Norwood, property management specialist with the Vermont Department of Buildings & General Services (BGS), said the state has some “air quality” concerns about the Carbro Building space and therefore is reluctant to make a long-term commitment. Norwood also said BGS is negotiating with the developers of Middlebury South Village off Court Street for the possibility of eventually relocating to a building that would be erected in that planned unit development.
While there is unused space in the lower level of the county courthouse, officials acknowledged the state would need to invest some money in bringing it up to office standards.
“It’s available space, but not optimal space,” Courthouse Manager Chip Epperson said.
Investing renovation money — which would have to be OK’d by the BGS, and not corrections officials — could be a tough sell during this tough budget year, according to Pallito.
“Let’s face it, we went through this exercise because of money,” Pallito said, “so spending more money up-front, I’m not sure that’s going to work.”
State and local officials promised to work together to try and locate a new Middlebury home for Probation and Parole as soon as possible.
“We have never thought about making this county the ‘stepchild,’” Kotkin said.