As state lawmakers contemplate two prison reform bills at the Statehouse in Montpelier, the former chief of the Manchester Police Department is advising that elected representatives should listen as much to crime victims as to the perpetrators.
The two bills under consideration are S.261, which would prohibit life-without-parole sentences for those convicted of first- and second-degree murder, and S.338, which would prohibit corrections from setting the rules for people getting freed on probation.
Both bills, which are temporarily slowed while the State House is closed for the ongoing COVID-19 event, are intended to make life easier for those being punished for crimes.
Michael Hall, executive director of the Vermont Police Coalition and a retired chief of police for the Manchester Police Department, says the conversations about the bills have become too one-sided.
“I see a lot of talk about prison reform and people talking about a lot of the different things that have taken place, you know, to help reduce the prison population and that sort of thing. But I don’t see a whole lot of people going out and talking with the victims to see how that has impacted their lives,” Hall said.
He said it is the role of the judge and jury to make a determination about life without parole, and that the bills undermine traditional jurisprudence.
“As I explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee, I felt that in most cases the judge and the jury have heard the relevant evidence and they’ve heard the facts of the case. And I really think that it’s up to the judge and the jury to determine what’s appropriate in these cases,” Hall said.
He added that the types of crimes that generally result in life-without-parole sentences are not dissimilar from the crimes that would get someone the death penalty. He also highlighted a provision in the bill specifying that it will not be retroactive, so prisoners who are already incarcerated would not be able to seek parole.
Hall suggested this piece of the bill is going to invite legal challenges.
“I’m pretty confident that whenever the law is changed and you make a penalty a lesser offense, that you would be subject to an automatic reasonable appeal of your sentence, just like when you repealed some of the drug laws and people are going back and getting those convictions expunged.”
Advocates for S.261 include Susan Lawrence, the founder and CEO of the Center for Life Without Parole Studies. In written testimony submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 18, she urged lawmakers to allow no exceptions to a ban on life without parole.
“First, I strongly urge the committee to pass the bill without an aggravated murder carve-out,” she wrote. “When Vermont ended juvenile LWOP in 2015, it did so without a similar provision.”
“Modern neurologic science tells us that the brain is immature and still developing until the mid-20s, and perhaps beyond. If S.261 contains an aggravated murder carve-out, people with diminished culpability due to youth would still be able to be sentenced to LWOP based solely on the nature of their crime.”
Chris Fenno, executive director for the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services, on Feb. 13 told the committee about the impacts that the continuation of parole hearings have on the victims’ families.
“For victims and their families, the possibility of parole at some later date means that the event is never over,” he said. “The possibility of parole hearings for the most egregious crimes, where victims and their families would potentially be retraumatized, does not take into account the gravity of the violence committed nor the fact that their sentence as grieving friends and families never ends.”
Regarding S.338, which prohibits corrections officers from setting rules for those released on probation, Hall told True North that the bill is another example of legislators taking decisions away from the professionals who are best-equipped to handle them.
“It’s outrageous,” he said. “If this were to prohibit corrections from setting the rules that the people under their responsibility are held to, what exactly would their responsibility be?”
Hall said that 80 percent of the people who end up back in jail from being on probation are returned for violating these types of conditions. Hall does not think that eliminating the conditions of release is the answer to this problem.