BENNINGTON — A Dorset resident challenging Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage in the Democratic primary contends that the office "is being run with a decades-old philosophy" that stresses an inflexible attitude on crime.
Arnold Gottlieb, a private practice attorney since 1978 in Ohio and Vermont, will formally announce his candidacy on Wednesday afternoon, May 2, outside the courthouse on South Street in Bennington.
"I think the times have changed, and the needs of the office have changed," Gottlieb said during an interview.
Once, all candidates for a chief prosecutor position, he said, "were trying to be the toughest on crime."
But today, with a swollen prison population — held at a cost of $40,000 to $60,000 per year per inmate — and the heavy involvement of opioids in criminal activity, alternative approaches have to be stressed, Gottlieb said.
He contends that the office, led by Marthage since 2006, has a deserved reputation for incarcerating far more residents per capita than any other jurisdiction. Gottlieb cited a March 2016 investigative report in Seven Days that was headlined, "Bennington Locks Up More People Than Any Other Vermont County."
That article by Mark Davis "kind of wraps up what I am talking about," Gottlieb said, adding that the issues it raised reflect "the overall culture of the office. I think we have to get with the times."
Marthage has said she is following the priorities of the voters of Bennington County to keep the community safe. She also questioned the accuracy of some of the state incarceration figures used in the article, dating from 2014.
Gottlieb also faulted the incumbent for failing to take advantage of alternative approaches to incarceration that have been used more extensively elsewhere.
For instance, he said, "I think that people overwhelmingly want a [local] drug court, which is a real need."
But Gottlieb said Marthage didn't attend a discussion in February among local lawmakers, drug treatment practitioners and others who want to establish an alternative drug court docket in Bennington, which would allow another path toward rehabilitation with no resulting criminal record.
"The current state's attorney has not been involved in talks about a drug court," he said. "I just don't get it. The state's attorney should be involved."
Marthage contends that similar options, such as the nonprofit Center for Restorative Justice, already operate here, and she questions whether a drug court docket would receive adequate funding for supervision and drug treatment for those in the program to ensure they meet their goals.
High incarceration rate
Gottlieb also contends that the state's attorney's office "has structural problems because so many charges are being filed."
Coupled with what he termed a slow pace for reaching plea agreements, the result, Gottlieb said, is there are "too many cases of people waiting month after month" for their trial to begin, which he said causes an inordinate amount of congestion in the court schedule.
"In my view, a lot of these [cases] could be addressed earlier," he said. "I would give [defendants] the best deal at the start and say, `This is the deal and it will not change.'"
With as many as nine in ten criminal cases having some involvement with drugs, Gottlieb believes many charges "could be resolved in a drug court," adding, "I think this has to be looked at in a medical rather than a criminal issue."
The situation with large prison populations "is a contemporary prison reform problem," he said. "Most people believe we incarcerate way too many people."
In addition, Gottlieb believes charges sought by police agencies should be screened more carefully before they are filed by the office.
"I think there could be a more effective review of charges brought in by police," he said, especially those that are drug-related.
"There are some who have to go away [to prison]; there are some bad guys," he said, but argued that many young people stopped with drugs in their vehicle and others don't fit that description.
The candidate said he hopes to meet with police officials to listen to concerns they have about the state's attorney's office and explain how he believes better screening of requests for charges would benefit law enforcement agencies as well, leading to more effective outcomes in court.
"Everybody can work together; they really can," Gottlieb said.
"I want to sit down with them, find out what they like, what they don't like, what has been working and what hasn't," he said of police officials. "The point is, I would like to hear from them."
Gottlieb said he is not alone in the legal community in seeing a need for changes in the office, but few, he said, are willing to speak publicly because they represent clients with criminal cases in the Bennington courts.
"Some [attorneys] are very frustrated," he said, "but I can't divulge their names; this is a small legal community."
The candidate also plans to stress to voters the importance of the state's attorney's office within the criminal justice system. The office "has an enormous amount of power," he said, in determining what charges are filed, what sentences are requested and what plea agreements are reached or alternative programs utilized.
"If you really want to change the system, this is where you want to do it," Gottlieb said.
Gottlieb, 66, who received a law degree in 1977 from the University of Toledo, practiced law in Ohio before he and his wife "fell in love with Vermont" during vacation visits and moved here in 2014.
He has represented clients in both criminal and civil cases, including in homicide, rape, robbery and other felony cases.
He has served as a volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Ohio and has represented indigent defendants in death penalty cases before Ohio Supreme Court and argued cases before the U.S. Tax Court and U.S. District Court in Ohio.
Gottlieb also serves as a substitute teacher at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, and on the Design Review Board in Dorset.
His wife, Carol Leoffler, is a clinical psychologist who has a practice in Manchester.
More information on the campaign can be found at arniegottlieb.org.
Marthage said this week that she plans to formally announce her candidacy for re-election in mid-May.