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A debate over criminal justice reform is on the primary ballot in Chittenden County

Steps leading up to a courthouse.
Emily Corwin
VPR File
The top prosecutor in Vermont’s largest county is facing a primary challenge for the first time. Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George faces a challenge from Williston attorney Ted Kenney.

The top prosecutor in Vermont’s largest county is facing a primary challenge for the first time.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George's tenure in office has defined a slate of policies intended to reduce racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system. Under George's leadership, prosecutors can no longer ask that defendants are held on cash bail. She's also declined to prosecute charges stemming from traffic stops made for reasons other than public safety, like a broken tail light.

George’s actions have won her praise from advocates for criminal justice reform. But they’ve also drawn criticism from politicians, business owners and law enforcement officials — who contend George’s policies have made the area less safe. And now, she faces an opponent in the Democratic primary who wants to take a tougher stance on crime.

Vermont Public's Liam Elder-Connors spoke to Henry Epp and Anna Van Dine, hosts of The Frequency, about the primary race. Their conversation below has been edited for clarity.

The Frequency: Can you tell us about George's primary opponent, Ted Kenney, and what he's saying on the campaign trail?

Liam Elder-Connors: Sure. Ted Kenney is an attorney. He lives in Williston, and most recently, he was the Human Services Division chief for the attorney general's office. He's been interested in this job, being Chittenden County state's attorney, before, including when Sarah George was appointed in 2017. He was one of three people who put their name into consideration after TJ Donovan became attorney general and left that post. And the crux of Ted Kenney's campaign this year is the slogan that he has that's "criminal justice reform and safe streets."

What exactly does Kenney think needs to change?

Well, he agrees with George about things like bail reform and about addressing racial disparities in traffic stops and other areas of law enforcement. But like his slogan implies, he thinks that right now, the balance between criminal justice reform and public safety isn't quite there. And he's kind of pushing for a different approach and a different look at certain aspects of the criminal justice system and prosecution, saying that George isn't really tough enough on some of those public safety issues. One of the big issues that he talks about is repeat offenders, and he talks about the need to get more conditions of release and sort of have a tougher stance on folks who are repeatedly being prosecuted for crimes.

"It’s not lock them up and throw away the key. But it is, you know — there do have to be consequences that I don't think are being put into place now. There do have to be conditions of release that are not being implemented now," Kenney said.

Now, it's important to note that judges are the ones that impose conditions of release, not state’s attorneys. And while Kenney says he's going to advocate and push for stricter conditions, ultimately, a judge is the one who would actually impose those conditions. But Kenney's stance has resonated with law enforcement officials in the county, including several police unions who have endorsed his candidacy.

And so how is Sarah George responding to Kenney's criticisms?

She's defended her record and stands by her policies, saying that she wouldn't be implementing them if she thought they were going to hurt public safety. She also points to things like the pandemic backlog in the courts as being a contributing factor in some of these issues, like repeat offenders — especially when it comes to retail thefts and other non-violent misdemeanors because those aren't being prioritized by the court right now. And so those cases just aren't going through as quickly and people are racking up charges.

And she also fundamentally believes that setting unreasonable and some stricter conditions of release would just lead to more incarceration. And she's really an advocate of using the power of the prosecutor's office to address racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system, promoting alternatives and restorative justice for lower-level offenses, where substance abuse and mental health conditions are underlying factors.

"You can hold people accountable without jail; you can hold people accountable without convictions. And in fact, the research is very clear that the less convictions in jail you use to hold people accountable, the better off your community is. The safer your community is," George said.

So it seems like a central point of contention in this campaign is around crime: whether it's up and if so, what's causing that? Is there any data that can help contextualize this picture?

There's not great county level data available, and so the picture is a little bit muddy. But Seven Days recently looked at Burlington crime data. And while a lot of rhetoric from law enforcement is that crime is going up, Seven Days revealed a bit more of a nuanced picture. There are indications that some crime is up in the short-term, things like burglaries, car break-ins, gunfire incidents — but overall crime is down. And that includes violent offenses. And while retail theft is slightly up in 2021, it's still half of what it was in 2016, according to Seven Days.

And also when you look at national studies on progressive prosecutors, researchers have found that policies like the ones Sarah George has put into place don't actually seem to be affecting crime rates.

There was a recent study of 35 citieswhere progressive prosecutors took office. Jennifer Doleac is an economics professor at Texas A&M University who worked on that study,

"The overall picture coming out of that paper is there really doesn't — it's not the prosecutors that are that are driving any sort of crime trends, at least on average," she said.

Doleac says another study that she was a part of looked at a county in Massachusetts. And that study found that when prosecutors declined to charge certain nonviolent misdemeanors, especially for first time offenders, there was a reduction in recidivism rates.

Alright, so Liam, do you have any sense at this point which way voters are leaning?

Well, it's hard to say because we don't have any polling to look at right here. But some of the rhetoric we're seeing in this campaign is similar to backlash that we've seen to other progressive prosecutors around the country. And that's including San Francisco where residents in June voted to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin. But we shouldn't be too quick to say that what happened in San Francisco is the litmus test that we should be judging what's happening in Chittenden County by, because other reform-minded prosecutors have won elections recently. So we'll have to wait for primary day to know for sure.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

Corrected: August 3, 2022 at 2:18 PM EDT
A previous version misspelled Ted Kenney's name.
Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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