UPDATED: County prosecutor talks record, priorities
UPDATED: When this story was published, in June, Wygmans was running unopposed. In August Peter Bevere joined the race for Addison County State’s Attorney running as an Independent.
MIDDLEBURY — After 15 months on the job, Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans is seeking a new four-year mandate from area voters. Barring an eleventh-hour write-in campaign by another candidate, Wygmans will run unopposed in his first election for the position.
And while “Dennis Wygmans” is likely to be the only candidate name under “state’s attorney” section of the Nov. 6 ballot, the incumbent wants voters to know what he’s done and would like to accomplish during his first full term. And it involves a lot more than presiding over an office that prosecutes a full docket of criminal cases that routinely range from larceny to aggravated sexual assault.
“I made a few promises when I was first appointed,” said Wygmans, who was appointed to the post in January 2017.
One of those promises involved giving qualifying Addison County defendants access to a “treatment court,” where they would be given up to 18 months to resolve their addiction issues while simultaneously being given education and job training. Those who successfully graduate from the program get their criminal case expunged. Those who fail to make progress find themselves back in the conventional court system and punished for their crimes.
“We’re on the verge of admitting (Addison County) people into a treatment court in Chittenden County,” he said. “We’ve already worked out all the kinks in that, so that will be an option for high-risk offenders who have a substance abuse problem.
“This is kind of their last best hope,” Wygmans said of the program. “It’s a group of people who would typically be going to jail.”
Another one of Wygmans’ goals was to find a better way to process people who have had their driver’s licenses criminally suspended because of repeated failure to pay fines. The current policy allows offenders to work out a payment plan and become relicensed more promptly so they can resume their commute to work and thus not lose household income.
“I’m glad to say we’re seeing around one person a week come in and become relicensed … as opposed to piling more fines on somebody who’s having a difficult time paying fines,” Wygmans said. “We’re getting quite a few people taking advantage of this (program).”
Wygmans is also preparing to join other state’s attorneys in exonerating people previously convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses. It relates to the upcoming July 1 implementation of Vermont’s new marijuana law, which makes it legal for adults to possess up to an ounce of weed and grow up to two mature plants on their property.
So anyone previously convicted in Addison County for possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana can apply to have his or her conviction expunged. Some members of the Addison County Bar have agreed to help qualifying applicants with their expungement application, available through the county courthouse, according to Wygmans.
Having pot-related offenses on one’s record could affect a person’s ability to land a job or an apartment, Wygmans reasoned. Since it will soon be legal to possess misdemeanor amounts, it doesn’t make sense for past offenders to be penalized for their past, he said.
Officials estimate there are currently 740 misdemeanor convictions on file (dating back to 1990) in Addison County that could qualify for expungement. Those who have committed felony offenses since their misdemeanor marijuana conviction could be excluded from the offer, according to Wygmans.
APPOINTED TO JOB
Wygmans joined the Addison County State’s Attorney’s Office in 2013. He would work three years there as a deputy state’s attorney, prosecuting sex crimes and domestic violence cases.
In December of 2016, Wygmans left Addison County to become a deputy prosecutor in Chittenden County, taking on a variety of criminal cases. But Wygmans upon his departure had left the door open for a return to the Frank Mahady Courthouse in Middlebury. He had applied for the county’s lead prosecutor job when then-State’s Attorney David Fenster was named to a Vermont Superior Court judgeship. Then-Gov. Peter Shumlin named Wygmans to the job in January of 2017.
He’s been unapologetically tough when it comes to the harsh sentences he seeks for people he believes are a danger to others. But he’d like to see other punishment and restitution options for people he believes deserve more than occasional check-ins with a parole officer, but less than a jail term.
“There are people who go to jail who aren’t necessarily a danger to the community and would thrive, given the opportunity,” Wygmans said. “Right now it’s all or nothing, so to speak. I think we’ve learned that jail isn’t always the best answer, so it’s time for us to start experimenting with some other ideas.”
Wygmans believes the answer is rehabilitative housing, which he said has gained a good track record in other counties, states and at the federal level.
“You live in a home, Department of Corrections supervisors are right there, your counseling occurs in your home where you are temporarily,” he said. “You’re learning how to shop for groceries, mow lawns and you’re cooking the meals. It’s a very effective way of ending recidivism.”
Jail and rehabilitation don’t always go hand in hand, according to Wygmans.
“If you have someone who’s been suffering with a mental health or substance abuse issue, maybe at one point they had the skills to live a normal productive life, this would help them put those pieces back into place,” Wygmans said. “That’s not something you’re going to be able to do while you’re in jail.”
Looking ahead, Wygmans will urge the state to invest in an on-call mental health provider for Addison County.
Wygmans noted St. Albans police were spending an average of 70 minutes on each mental health-related call. That’s gone down to around 30 minutes since the department hired an embedded social worker, according to Wygmans. Vermont State Police have also seen great success with having a mental health worker on board, he added.
“It’s cost effective and it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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