Editorial: Of crime, the law and housing
Last Tuesday at Middlebury’s selectboard meeting, about two dozen downtown merchants, property owners and interested citizens urged town officials to get a handle on crimes occurring in the downtown. Of particular concern was the ability of a few individuals to commit offenses repeatedly, seemingly without consequence.
From that meeting the public learned the Middlebury Police Department and Addison County State’s Attorney Eva Vekos were prosecuting many of the offenses for which they had adequate evidence, yet saw district courts releasing those individuals, often without bail, until their court dates. That freedom has allowed some individuals to commit further crimes. One woman associated with the summer crime spree had more than 20 run-ins with local law enforcement officers and seven arrests (and over 70 encounters with law enforcement throughout the state.) But by no means is the crime spree related to just one person, merchants said, insisting that several people need to be held accountable.
To those directly impacted, the inability of the court system to restrain known repeat offenders is a problem that needs fixing. To that end, local merchants and the town selectboard asked local legislative delegates how the state might help.
State Senator Ruth Hardy, D-Addison County, chose to speak at the meeting with prepared remarks in which she defended the laws limiting the use of bail to restrain those charged with crimes. Sen. Hardy emphasized the state’s constitution includes language preventing the use of “excessive” bail, adding there was little the Legislature could do to address what is the state’s criminal process.
Sen. Hardy missed what some may have thought was an obvious distinction: the difference between “excessive” and “reasonable” amounts of bail, and the need to amend state statute, not the state’s constitution, to address today’s ills. To say she misread the room is an understatement.
As Vekos suggested, the Legislature has the power to tweak language if the legal process seems inadequate. Vekos specifically cited Section 7575 of Title 13, Crimes and Criminal Procedure, Chapter 229: Bail and Recognizances, found in the State Statutes at https://legislature.vermont.gov/statutes/fullchapter/13/229.
To be clear, state statutes do require defendants in misdemeanor crimes be released upon their appearance before a judge and that “no bail” be imposed, pending a few drastic exceptions, or if there is a risk of flight then bail of no more than $200 may be imposed, as per section 7551.
However, a caveat in the third point of this same section states: “(3) This subsection shall not be construed to restrict the court’s ability to impose conditions on such persons to reasonably mitigate the risk of flight from prosecution or to reasonably protect the public in accordance with section 7554 of this title. (Amended 2001, No. 124 (Adj. Sess.), § 1, eff. June 5, 2002; amended 2017, No. 62, § 1; 2017, No. 164 (Adj. Sess.), § 1.)
Section 7554 explains all the conditions that must be considered to release, or hold, a person charged with a crime prior to that person’s trial. It begins with the premise that all persons should be released on personal recognizance prior to the trial, if possible, and that prior restraint be used only when necessary to protect public safety or mitigate the risk of flight. It’s a lengthy section that covers a wide range of possibilities. There’s also a whole section on pretrial risk assessments, and needs (including mental illness) screenings, which must be voluntary. It’s worth reading if you’re a person who thinks superior court judges are not acting with, let’s say, determination.
It is, in a word, complex.
But more to the point, twenty sections later, Section 7575 lays out the “revocation of the right to bail,” in which one of five conditions states: “The right to bail may be revoked entirely if the judicial officer finds that the accused… (is) in violation of a condition of release, been charged with a felony or a crime against a person, or an offense similar to the underlying charge, for which, after hearing, probable cause is found. (Added 1989, No. 293 (Adj. Sess.), § 2; amended 2017, No. 164 (Adj. Sess.), § 4.)
This section could allow courts to exercise more restraint on individuals committing repeat offenses that may not meet the criminal threshold of threatening an individual’s safety, but nonetheless creates enough fear among the public to meet a definition of threatening public safety as well as threatening businesses’ economic survival.
It’s a section of the law legislators could strengthen. In the passages of the statutes cited above, it’s clear the evolution of any law are legislative amendments and updates. With today’s prevalence of mental illness and drug addiction, laws that address those challenges should be adapted in ways that allow law enforcement and judges to work together more effectively, and more forcefully when needed.
That doesn’t mean the rights of the accused be unnecessarily restricted, but when offenders can have as many as 70 interactions with state law enforcement in a short period of time and remain free to commit more crimes, that’s a problem to solve within the judicial system — not conflated into a political argument over how much to spend on social services and affordable housing.
As Middlebury Selectboard member Andy Hooper said so well at the meeting, “we don’t have a system designed to handle a person (or persons) willing to burn the town down.”
The courts, and the Legislature, need to help towns address that reality.
OUR HOUSELESS POPULATION
The issue of the handful of tents encamped under Middlebury’s Cross Street Bridge, and of the houseless people in our communities, is separate from the crimes recently committed in Middlebury and in other communities. Thankfully, a collaborative task force that had begun addressing the problem prior to the pandemic has been revived.
In a front-page story, we report that the Middlebury Homelessness Task Force (MHTF) met in early October to discuss ways to meet the needs of those who are houseless.
“I think what we’re seeing right now in Middlebury is the result of some broken systems,” said United Way of Addison County Executive Director Helena Van Voorst. “I hope this energizes the community to break down silos and get creative about how to help everyone. It takes all sectors of the community.”
The MHTF joins two other local groups dealing with the issue — Addison County Housing Coalition and Housing Solutions. Both groups have action plans in progress.
It’s an uplifting story with many positive forces in play, but it’s a daunting problem facing nearly every community of size throughout the state and large parts of the country. No quick fixes are expected. On the contrary, progress will require patience, understanding and community goodwill as local social service agencies first build personal relationships with those needing help, then find ways to provide the appropriate help when asked. It’s also about being sensitive and caring, and taking the time to do it well.
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