By Guy Page
Should people arrested for committing violent crimes be sent to jail? Sarah George, Chittenden County State’s Attorney, doesn’t think so. Most violent perpetrators need mental health services instead, she said Friday on WVMT’s Morning Drive.
Host Kurt Wright said to George, “During the protests in Battery Park, there was a report of a man who attacked someone in Battery Park. He was later on Church Street attacking someone with a club.” He attacked police when they arrested him, Wright said.
Wright: “He was back out on the street in 24 hours. … Public safety has got to be the number one issue. And when somebody like that is back on the street in 24 hours, it has people scratching their heads, ‘what the heck’s going on here?’”
George: “Some people think, and perhaps you’re one of them, Kurt, is that somehow jail is going to fix that. And it doesn’t. It makes it worse. People come out more likely to recidivate. They come out with worse mental health problems, trauma, sometimes sexually assaulted in jail.”
Wright: “But for whatever reason, having them out on the street is not the answer, though.”
George: No, that’s exactly where they should be! They should be getting services in the street, in the community where they have roots. They don’t get those services in jail. They don’t get anything in jail.”
Wright: “The one thing we do know, though, is that when they’re not in jail, they’re not taking a club to somebody on Church Street.”
George: “Of course. But the second they come out, they might again, and they might do something worse, because they’ve been in jail and not getting any services.”
Wright: “So, at what level do we put them in jail? If they’re violently attacking someone, we don’t put them in jail?”
George: “(Scoffing sound). We can agree to disagree on this all day, my point is that some people need services first. Putting them in jail for whatever period of time does not work. It’s not the answer. We’ve gotten so used to that being the solution, just throwing someone away, instead of trying to see what they’re underlying problems are and fixing them.”
Co-host Marcus Certa jumped in: “We have a lack of mental health beds. I can see both of your points. But if we don’t have a place to put them, to get them the care that they need? Is it a problem because we don’t have a place to put them?”
George: “The burden of getting someone hospitalized is very high. It’s easier to put someone in jail than in a psychiatrist facility. A lot of people don’t need that level of care, they just need something. … A lot of people don’t have toothbrushes … then they lose their teeth and they can’t eat.” George emphasized that meeting such basic needs would go a long way.
Then it was time to go to the Morning Drive phones. When the first caller noted that “people who are victims of crime lose their freedom,” George answered: “Public safety to me is the most important thing. I am really tired of people thinking that all victims want is for people to be put in jail. They [victims] want to know why it happened, and will it happen to someone else. They rarely want jail. They want services.”
The next caller suggested to George, “Maybe you should be a psychologist and not a DA.”
George responded that inmates “might get programming” but not legitimate psychological counseling in prison. “Prosecutors have become social workers. Law enforcement have become social workers. We are constantly trying to get these people services,” she said.
Wright returned to his central theme: “People have been accosted over and over again by the same person. … People have great concerns. There is a problem somewhere. And we need to fix it.”
George said, “What I’m disagreeing with is that all of those people deserve to be in jail. It’s not fiscally responsible, it’s not what our jails are made for. We need to fix the rest of the system.”
George also said requiring cash bail is “a racist and classist tool” because only people who can’t pay are held for lack of cash bail.
Read more of Guy Page’s reports. Vermont Daily is sponsored by True North Media.