Forum shows basics of the local criminal justice system

MIDDLEBURY — A panel of some of the most influential members of Addison County’s criminal justice system said they are not aware of racial bias within the local courts or law enforcement agencies, but they vowed to be vigilant in detecting and eradicating such behavior if it were to ever becomes evident.
That was a major takeaway from a public forum held at Middlebury’s town offices on Monday. The forum, titled “Humanizing the Criminal Justice System,” featured insights from a panel that included Addison County Superior Court Judge Samuel Hoar, Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster, Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley and Jon Kidde, a restorative justice consultant in Vermont.
Monday’s forum was co-organized by Middlebury Selectwoman Susan Shashok and Middlebury Police Officer Chris Mason, who serves as the town’s school resources officer. It was intended to educate people on how they should expect to be treated if ever arrested, as well as provide reassurance to residents in wake of the recent, violent police-public confrontations in other parts of the country.
The forum began with the mock arrest of Shashok on a fictional, felony burglary charge. Police assigned a motive that they said is common in many thefts these days: drug addiction. So Mason — amid laughter and smiles from the crowd and panel — handcuffed Shashok for the pretend crime of driving her Yugo into the window of a local store and allegedly stealing around $80 from inside.
While the moment provided some chuckles, it also brought a dose of reality.
“I found the arrest part very difficult,” Shashok acknowledged after the event. “I heard the fake charges for the first time and even though they had elements of humor, I felt some shame — especially in front of my teenage son. I also felt very vulnerable in the handcuffs. Within a few seconds, I had the least amount of freedom in a room full of people.”
After being “booked,” the panelists took Shashok on a simulated journey through bail, arraignment, a potential plea bargain and sentencing. As Fenster and Judge Hoar explained, Shashok’s faux sentence would likely not include jail time, due to it being her first “offense” and because the Vermont criminal justice system places a premium on getting drug addiction treatment for offenders so they have a better chance of averting future criminal activity.
Panelists then turned their attention to some questions from the audience, the weightiest of which related to racial bias and whether that phenomenon exists within the state’s — and Addison County’s — criminal justice systems.
The panelists conceded that racial bias can at times be seen within the justice systems of the most populated Vermont counties, but not in Addison County — at least, not at this point.
Kidde pointed to a recent Vermont Department for Children & Families report that he said indicates disparities in children’s access to justice based on race, economic status and special education status.
“Vermont, because it’s got such a small population, it becomes very difficult to see statistically significant racial disparities, but those do exist in Burlington’s youth justice system,” Kidde said. “There are documented racial disparities, in terms of people of color being worked further into the system … It is also an issue in the Vermont school system.”
But he hastened to add that “people are working to address it.”
Fenster noted that the case paperwork he receives from police officers does not include information on the race or nationality of the accused. This allows him to figure out what the case is about before having other details about the suspect’s background.
“More often than not, I read through the paperwork and wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about the race of the person who was involved in that case,” Fenster said.
Still, prosecutors and other court officials must constantly by on guard against falling prey to what he called “implicit bias.”
“You’ve got to make sure you are doing your best to pay attention to that,” he said. “We all have our own implicit biases, whether it’s race or something else. We all have them; it’s the way human beings work. We kind of categorize things. From my point of view and my office’s point of view, we try to make sure that we are at least aware of them, and guarding against any kind of implicit bias creeping into the work we’re doing.”
Fenster pointed to other factors limiting the potential for racial bias in Addison County’s courthouse.
“One of the problems in terms of measurement, especially in Addison County, is that we have a very small number — relatively speaking — of offenders,” Fenster said. “And part of the Vermont criminal justice system is individualized sentencing. Every sentence is supposed to be tailored to that individual.”
That means that Vermont prosecutors aren’t required to push for arbitrary jail sentences prescribed for certain crimes. They have the latitude to work within the guidelines of a maximum jail sentence to carve out a punishment for a defendant that considers many factors in the case, according to Fenster.
“We don’t have guidelines that are mandatory or even suggested,” he said.
“I can tell you that the sentences can be very disparate.”
Hoar said he has seen no overt evidence of racial bias within the county’s criminal justice system.
“If you wanted to know the answer in answer in Addison County, you’d have to do a deep longitudinal dive into what’s been going on over a period of years, because if you looked even at one year of data, fortunately — for all of you who live in Addison County — the volume is not huge,” he said. “I’m not sure you would get statistically significant samples if you just took a one-year look. You need a city like Burlington or a statewide snapshot. But it is something we should be concerned about and it’s something I hope we’re all paying attention to.”
The Middlebury Police Department more than a decade ago became one of the first agencies in the state to adopt a “fair and impartial policing policy.” That policy, for example, precludes officers from stopping/interrogating an individual about their legal status simply because he or she might look Hispanic.
“When I look at somebody out there, I don’t look at you as black or white or Spanish or ethnic or Romanian, or whatever,” Hanley said. “I just see a person. You’re a person.”
Middlebury police also have a policy through which drug addicts are invited to voluntarily turn in their drugs without fear of facing criminal charges, providing they agree to be steered toward recovery programs and services.
And Middlebury police, according to Hanley, puts their candidates through a rigorous screening process to minimize the chances of having bad cops who might exhibit racial biases.
“I think we have been fairly successful at that over the years, in terms of trying to vet that before the (candidates) get through the door,” Hanley said. “Our hiring process is agonizingly long and frustrating. We wash-out far more candidates than we hire — mostly in the background stage, and no matter how well they do on our test.”
Hanley said most crimes are brought to the police department’s attention by a third party, so officers aren’t “profiling” who they stop. He added many of the motor vehicle related stops occur at night, when police have no idea who might be driving the car.
Hanley cautioned that crime statistics can be misleading, given the way they are compiled.
“A person who has committed multiple crimes shows up as one person, multiple times,” Hanley said. “If that person is part of a racial or ethnic group that is very small in number, those (crime statistics) get very skewed really quick.
“You really have to dig deep into these statistics before you can make any conclusions,” he added.
Middlebury’s chief stressed that he and many of his officers are directly invested in the community, because they also reside here. This gives them added incentive to treat the local population with integrity and professionalism, according to Hanley.
“My grandchildren are in the public school system here,” he said. “I live here and walk down the street, not in a police uniform. What motivation would I have to begin to treat my fellow citizens unjustly, and walk down the street and see you at Hannaford’s and the Food Co-op, the hardware store, and look you in the eye and say, ‘I think I’m doing a pretty good job, what do you think?’”
He added his children and grandchildren give him extra motivation to perform his job to the best of his ability.
“I worry about what I’m going to leave them,” Hanley said.
While he has only been a judge for less than three years and resides in Chittenden County, Hoar said he’s has gained a great appreciation for Middlebury and Addison County. He recounted being “blessed” when his bosses recently added another year to his tenure on the Middlebury bench. It is customary for Vermont Superior Court judges to spend one year on a county bench before moving to another county courthouse.
“My colleagues on the bench ask me, ‘What’s it like in Middlebury?’” Hoar said. “I tell them uniformly (Addison County) is the land of milk and honey. It really is. You folks might not realize how good you have it.”
Hoar acknowledged the Addison County court system sees the same kinds of cases — influenced by the same sport of underlying social problems — as the larger courts in Burlington, St. Albans and Rutland. But Hoar stressed Addison County doesn’t have these cases in the same volume or severity as the larger population centers.
“You’ve got local police here and state police who are just as committed to doing a good job to investigate cases well and who use good judgment in (the cases) they bring to (Fenster’s) office,” Hoar said.
The judge called Fenster “amazing,” in terms of how he prosecutes cases before the court. Specifically, he credited Fenster with being judicious in his use of his powers as prosecutor and for treating defendants “in a human fashion.”
It is that latter quality that has particular resonance for Hoar, who when he became Addison County’s presiding judge during the fall of 2015 stressed an “overriding philosophy of humanizing a process that is deeply dehumanizing by its very nature.”
Hoar also gave kudos to Addison County Public Defender James Gratton and the county’s cadre of lawyers.
“It’s an honor to work with these folks and you should be very proud with what you have here in your system in Addison County,” Hoar said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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