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No prison time: Grand Isle County case spurs debate on drug crime sentencing

A man in a suit talks in front of a microphone.
Liam Elder-Connors
Vermont Public
Grand Isle State's Attorney Doug DiSabito speaks to reporters in May. DiSabito recently put out a statement critical of a judge's sentencing decision in a drug case he prosecuted.

A Grand Isle County man convicted of trafficking fentanyl and selling heroin was recently sentenced to probation rather than prison time.

The frustrated prosecutor in the case, as well as a public defender and a recovery coach, joined Vermont Edition on Monday for a discussion about what the case may demonstrate about the criminal justice system and the opioid crisis.

Shaun Robinson, a reporter at VTDigger who covers northwestern Vermont, reported on the controversy over the sentencing.

Michael Larrow Sr. pleaded no contest to fentanyl trafficking and pleaded guilty to selling or dispensing heroin.

Grand Isle County State’s Attorney Doug DiSabito had asked Judge Samuel Hoar to sentence Larrow to a combined 30 years to life in prison. DiSabito had chosen to use a habitual offender enhancement in Larrow’s case because of his history and because, DiSabito said on Vermont Edition, “this defendant is notorious in the county for selling drugs.”

Meanwhile, Larrow’s attorney described his client as a “street level dealer” with his own substance use issues, according to VTDigger. The attorney said Larrow had been participating in drug rehabilitation classes and biweekly drug tests since his arrest, according to VTDigger’s report.

Larrow and his attorney declined to participate in Vermont Edition or provide a comment in advance of the discussion.

Ultimately, the judge imposed a sentence of four to 10 years in prison, all suspended with a four-year term of probation. Larrow is subject to random drug tests and searches of his property, according to VTDigger’s reporting of court documents.

DiSabito responded to the sentence with a rare press release slamming the judge’s decision.

“When the Legislature attributes fentanyl trafficking as a 30-year or $1 million fine sentence, it needs to mean something,” DiSabito said on Vermont Edition. And then when the state's attorney opts to add the habitual offender enhancement — which means they can be sentenced up to and including life in jail — that needs to mean something, that the state's attorney used his or her discretion to add that, to send a message that this is enough is enough. And until the Legislature, you know, repeals these laws, I'm going to continue doing what I've been doing. But it's really disheartening.”

In his statement, DiSabito suggested that others may come to Grand Isle County to deal drugs as a result of the sentence.

Rosie Chase, a public defender in Franklin County not involved in Larrow’s case, challenged this statement on Vermont Edition.

“For him to suggest that drug dealers, you know, sort of research criminal sentences prior to dealing drugs, and that they're going to infiltrate Grand Isle County now to sell drugs, because this one gentleman was given a probated sentence after a careful consideration by the court, is nonsense,” Chase said.

Chase argued that Vermonters, including Grand Isle County residents, support criminal justice reform and do not want to go back to a war on drugs reliant on costly prison sentences.

“When people are found by judges, after careful consideration, to be amenable to community supervision, and to reform and rehabilitation — that is what results in a safer community,” Chase said. “And so, you know, for Mr. DiSabito to want the Vermonters to pay that bill to warehouse somebody for a nonviolent crime just doesn't make any sense.”

In response, DiSabito said he was well aware of his constituents’ views and invited Chase to join him for a forum on the subject to hear what Grand Isle residents think.

“When they've given all these chances,” DiSabito said of people with a history of trafficking drugs, “the only way to really stop them is to incapacitate them so somebody that is not dealing doesn't come across what they've put out and overdose and die.”

A recovery coach's perspective

Melinda White, who works with both the Howard Center and Turning Point of Franklin County, weighed in with her own experience of being in recovery from addiction and then helping others.

“In this case, you know, I don't want to pretend that I know what the best answer is,” White said. “But it does concern me to know that this individual was still out on the streets with the potential to continue distributing and take other people's loved ones. And I also think that this individual deserves solid treatment, recovery and support.”

A punitive approach to addiction doesn’t work, White said. But speaking personally of her own experience with addiction, White said she needed her behaviors to be held accountable. She pointed to the restorative justice model as a solution that combines compassion and discipline.

“It's not all one way or the other way,” White said. “It's bringing the pendulum back to the center where, just in my opinion, I feel it ought to be, where we are giving somebody every opportunity to work on their recovery and get healthier and heal, not to stay alive but help them heal and thrive. It's not just punishing, but it's also not basically kind of doing nothing.”

After several listener calls where people shared personal experiences of addiction or losing loved ones to overdoses, White closed the conversation with advice.

White encouraged Vermonters to visit the Recovery Partners of Vermont website to find a recovery center.

“They support individuals that are looking for treatment and recovery and also any kind of wraparound service that they might need — and more than anything they provide community,” White said. “For me, I wanted to talk to somebody else who had been there, done that, got the T-shirt, that had a criminal background like I did, that I had injected like I did, before I could even believe that a wretch like me could be saved.”

That guidance and support allowed White to start accessing services, she said — and ultimately led to her work of giving back.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.