|Corrections Oversight Committee|
By Alicia Freese
With a Vermont sex offender making international news, lawmakers are revisiting the release procedures for high-risk people coming out of the correctional system.
At a Corrections Oversight Committee meeting on Monday, there was pervasive dismay among lawmakers over the public’s reaction to the release of [name withheld], a convicted sex offender who finished his maximum sentence at the end of July. One lawmaker lamented the “vigilantism” among community members; another pointed to the “feeding frenzy” among the media.
The sequence of events, documented by outlets as distant as Britain’s Daily Mail, began when the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) notified the town of Springfield that [name withheld], convicted in 2001 of aggravated sexual assault of a 13-year-old boy, had completed his sentence and would be returning to the town to live with his parents. The DOC identified [name withheld] as being at high risk of reoffending, and specified that blue-eyed, blond-haired boys of 12 or 13 could be possible targets. Panic erupted in Springfield, and after [name withheld]’s elderly parents were threatened, that housing offer was withdrawn. After a failed attempt to relocate to California, [name withheld] has settled in Hyde Park.
Lawmakers honed in on the DOC’s system for notifying people about the release of potentially dangerous offenders.
Rep. Alice Emmons, a Democrat from Springfield, had an up-close view of that town’s reaction. She told DOC Commissioner Andy Pallito that the precise sketch of the most probable victims that the department provided helped fuel the uproar.
“I think what really got the folks was the target population,” she said.
The “blond hair, blue-eyed” description did strike a chord, Pallito agreed, and he said the department will “re-evaluate whether or not having potential victim information makes sense.”
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the judiciary committee, identified a different problem.
The department could have quelled some concern, Sears suggested, by simply telling the public why it had deemed [name withheld] high risk in the first place.
“We report that the offender is high risk but we don’t report what the high risk is based on,” Sears said. He also assured Pallito, “I helped write the laws for the notifications, so I’m not against this.”
Pallito said his department will make an effort to educate the public about what warrants a “high-risk” designation, but the HIPPAA Privacy Rule will prevent it from offering many of the particulars. Pallito expressed skepticism that spelling out the meaning of label would have much of an effect. “I think it will offer better information but I don’t know that it will lead to a better outcome.”
Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, described the Legislature’s task as identifying “What steps do we take to prevent that inclination to be a vigilante?”
|Corrections Oversight Committee|
“I don’t know that we can overcome vigilantism in certain people,” Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford, responded, “but I think continued education goes a long way. If there’s any type of void, people will fill it with their own assumptions.”
- So they know vigilantism is a problem but are doing nothing about it? How about take the registry offline to be used by police only? That would help!
Some lawmakers were more reticent to explore legislative antidotes to such uproars.
Rep. Suzy Wizowaty, D-Burlington, is not a member of the Corrections Oversight Committee, but she serves on the House Judiciary Committee and was there Monday to listen to the proceedings.
Wizowaty was adamant that a legislative response is not in order. “First, there is a great problem with trying to develop policy in reaction to specific events. Second, it is crucial that people realize that once someone has committed a crime and has served his or her time, the terms of our law and our legal system generally should be that he’s done. People deserve a second chance,” she said.
Said Heath, “We may be wasting our time because this may be so individual of a case, that it’s never going to happen again.”
The two Judiciary Committee chairs, Sears and his counterpart in the House, Democrat Rep. Bill Lippert, said they’ll revisit the state’s laws surrounding sex offenses to look for ways to prevent what happened with [name withheld].
“I think we have an obligation to continue to look at the policies, procedures and the laws,” Sears said. “I’m not calling off anything. We’ll look at everything.”
But Sears said he thinks the appropriate fix may already be in place. In 2009, the Legislature passed legislation that made a host of changes in state law addressing sex offenders and the sex offender registry system. That came in response to another high-profile sex offense case — the alleged murder and sexual assault of Brooke Bennett by her uncle, [name withheld].
One of those reforms makes “indeterminate sentencing” the default for certain types of sex offenders. That allows the DOC to continue to monitor offenders indefinitely after their release.
[name withheld] must comply with the state’s sex offender registry, but he’s free from DOC supervision, and that absence of oversight was a chief concern among community members.
Had [name withheld] been sentenced after 2009, “it would be a whole different ball game,” Sears said.
Pallito, for his part, left the meeting feeling at a loss. “I don’t think we came out of here with any kind of guidance. … I don’t know at this point if there’s something better we can do. I don’t have a quick fix for it.”