N.Y. lawmakers want stronger sex laws - in Vermont


Saturday, July 26
BENNINGTON — A statewide debate over Vermont's sex offender laws has spilled into neighboring New York, where two county legislators plan to introduce a resolution calling on Vermont to strengthen its laws.

Rensselaer County, N.Y., legislators Stanley Brownell and Lester Goodermote, both Republicans, said they intend to introduce the resolution when the county legislature meets next on Aug. 12.

Brownell and Goodermote represent the towns of Hoosick, Berlin, Grafton, Stephentown and Petersburgh in Rensselaer County, which borders Bennington County and includes Troy.

"We want to see state leaders in Vermont passing laws that get tough with sex offenders and prevent future tragedies. They need to recognize that they have a responsibility to help protect this region," Goodermote said in a statement.

The two Rensselaer County lawmakers said a recent case that made headlines nationwide involving a Vermont girl heightened their concern. The debate in Vermont over the state's laws pertaining to sex offenders has intensified in the wake of Brooke Bennett's death earlier this month. The 12-year-old girl from Braintree was found slain on July 2 not far from the home of Michael Jacques, Bennett's 42-year-old uncle. She went missing in Randolph a week earlier.

Jacques, a convicted sex offender who was released early from his probation, has been charged with kidnapping Bennett, but has yet to be charged with sexual assault or murder.

Jacques was convicted of kidnapping and sexual assaulting an 18-year-old woman in 1992. He served more than four years in prison and completed a sex offender treatment program while incarcerated, leading a Vermont Department of Corrections official to label Jacques a "success" story and advocate for Jacques' early release from his probation. He was granted early release from probation in 2006 by Judge Amy Davenport, against the recommendation of prosecutors.

Now, Brownell and Goodermote have joined a chorus of voices calling on Vermont to take action, saying the Green Mountain State has weak sex offender laws and weak sentencing requirements for sex offenders.

"We know that our rules are much more strict than Vermont is. We feel that the leniency of the Vermont state laws is a danger for people that live in eastern Rensselaer County," Goodermote said Friday. "We've seen some things with the judges in Vermont where the sentences are too lenient, with letting them go."

Vermont officials are in the process of reviewing the state's laws and considering how they might be strengthened. The Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, will begin holding meetings and public hearings next month.

Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, who had called for an immediate special legislative session to pass civil confinement and 25-year mandatory minimum sentences for offenders who sexually assault a child, has signed onto the process that Sears said will likely take at least six weeks to complete.

"We're working our tails off to try to strengthen Vermont laws," Sears said.

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Dubie said Brownell and Goodermote are welcome to participate in Vermont's process or even meet privately with state officials.

"If anybody's got any ideas about how to protect the children in Vermont and New York, we're going to consider ideas. If those gentleman want to participate in the hearings in August, they can," he said. "If it's a face-to-face meeting in Bennington or Troy, I'm all over it. I am passionate about my eagerness to work collaboratively with anybody to better protect the children of Vermont and our region.

Sears said the two New York lawmakers also are welcome to attend the meetings. "We're willing to meet with anybody that has good ideas. We're going to be meeting with people from all over the country," he said.

But Sears said New York also has problems that need attention. Two New York men were recently in Bennington District Court on charges that they sexually assaulted a student at Mount Anthony Union High School, he said.

"My first reaction is that people that live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. I really feel that way," Sears said. "Maybe they ought to look in their own backyard."

Rich Crist, communications director for the Rensselaer County Legislature, said Brownell and Goodermote are looking for Vermont to adopt provisions enacted in New York such as civil confinement and longer sentences for offenders.

Sears said his committee will be looking at all ideas except two — civil confinement and the death penalty. Both ideas have been looked into before and rejected in Vermont, he said.

In 2006, a law was passed in Vermont placing a presumptive 10-year minimum sentence, Sears said. Any sentence less than 10 years would require a judge to state on the record why the offender's sentence was reduced. But the law falls short of the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for sexual assault against a minor that many critics of Vermont laws have called for.

"I do support mandatory minimums; we just have a disagreement about how long they should be," Sears said, adding that New York does not currently have the longer mandatory minimum sentence, either.

Goodermote said the issue of protecting children is an "increasing problem" that extends beyond Vermont and New York.

"We'd just like it so the sex offenders are more accountable for what they've done so we can prevent them from reoccurring," Goodermote said. "We just want to show that we are adamant about the fact that the laws are too low up there and that we need to protect our citizenry."

The Judiciary Committee will hold its first meeting on Aug. 7, Sears said. The first public hearing will be held on Aug. 28 in Montpelier, and will be followed by hearings in Rutland and somewhere in Bennington County, he said.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com


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