BENNINGTON >> A forum and panel discussion on criminal justice reform drew over 50 people on Wednesday.
Attendees gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church Meeting House for "Re-Imagining Justice," an event by the nonprofit organization Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform.
"The restorative process doesn't happen behind concrete walls," said panelist Michael Washington. "It's not for treatment changing behavior. It's about survival."
Washington described how a drug addiction took away his sense of right and wrong, and led to him being incarcerated. Mental health issues in prison are "rampant," he said. People with addictions, for example, enter prison, are never treated, and come out of jail still addicted. Gaps in public transportation mean some people have difficulty getting to mandated court dates, "really set a person up for failure." And New York and Vermont, even though they touch, are like "night and day" in terms of what resources are available, he said.
Washington credited local resources like Turning Point of Bennington County for helping him after he was released.
Panelist Bradley Myerson, a Manchester attorney, called for drug treatment courts and other programs for Bennington County.
"We need to provide resources instead of jail and law enforcement, to help people with drug and mental health issues stay out of criminal justice system and become productive members of society," he said.
Law enforcement have challenges too. Panelist State Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington District 2-2, said public defenders "have a ridiculous number of cases."
Morris, with the The Alliance for Community Transformations, said that resource constraints mean police are being asked to respond to mental health cases when they haven't received the right training.
"Law enforcement being asked far beyond what officer should ever be doing," she said. "Their engagement with our community is at a much higher level than it should be in places and ways that it should not."
Ann Stevens with VCJR, a Burlingtonbased educational and advocacy organization, moderated the discussion. Stevens said a national conversation on criminal justice reform is "wildly overdue."
"What's important is that we, in our communities and small state, be a leader and an example," she said.
Stevens showed video clips from the VCJR "Story Project," which documents Vermonters who have been involved with the criminal justice system. One interviewee was 19 years old and lost custody of her daughter after she was in prison for over a year waiting to be sentenced. Attendees were also asked to read letters from inmates. In one, a woman described being pregnant in prison, but not being able to see a doctor or get prenatal treatment.
Panelist Meg McCarthy of Marlboro, whose husband is currently incarcerated, said she joined the VCJR board because of her own struggle, but learned just how big a problem it is.
"It affects the families," she said, and referenced the statistic that 1,700 Vermonters are incarcerated each day.
Panelists and attendees brought up the idea of a drug court. Three counties in Vermont currently have adult drug/treatment courts: Chittenden, Rutland and Washington. Drug court dockets are run out of the criminal division, but a defendant with a substance abuse disorder can opt for intensive supervision and treatment as an alternative to regular court processing. An individual would spend 10 to 18 months completing a multi-phase program and must have 240 days of negative drug tests to graduate.
Myerson called upon legislators, including Steve Berry, who was in attendance, to advocate for a local drug court.
"Jail is not the place to learn social skills or get treatment, and not the place to adjust to the real world," Myerson said.
— Contact Ed Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.