Diaz: Your vote for state’s attorney is a vote on criminal justice reform | Columnists
As Vermont’s primary election approaches on Aug. 9, it’s time for many voters to decide which candidates best align with their values — and that includes county attorney candidates.
Vermont’s elected prosecutors, known as state attorneys, wield enormous power in our communities. They choose whether someone is charged and for what offence; whether to seek the maximum or minimum sentence; and whether to prosecute police and government officials for misconduct. State attorneys have almost unlimited discretion to make decisions that impact the course of real people’s lives, every day. And they are on the ballot this year, with contested primaries in Chittenden, Washington and Addison counties.
For decades, Vermont officials — including elected state prosecutors — paved the way for a mass incarceration system fueled by overpolicing, racism and fear. Today, Vermonters know better. We consistently and overwhelmingly support criminal justice reform and want a public safety system that invests in people rather than prisons, and that values the health, dignity and well-being of all.
For example, in a poll last November, more than 70% of Vermont voters said a better way to prevent crime is to provide better access to rehabilitation programs than to send people to jail. . More than 60% — and four in five Democrats — said they would be more likely to vote for candidates who support police reform.
UVM’s Center for Rural Studies came to a similar conclusion in 2020, with nearly four in five Vermonters supporting a reduction in the number of people incarcerated in Vermont through investments in community alternatives. A 2018 poll — last year state prosecutors were on the ballot — indicated broad public support for candidates who favored alternatives to the police and incarceration.
So where do your state’s attorney candidates stand on criminal justice reform today? To improve Vermonters’ understanding of the positions of attorney candidates in their state, the ACLU of Vermont invited each candidate to answer 15 questions about issues affecting local communities — ranging from police misconduct and the opioid crisis to racial disparities and mass incarceration.
Of 17 candidates, only seven responded to the survey: Eva P. Vekos and Tim Lueders-Dumont (Addison County); Sarah George (Chittenden County); John Lavoie and Zach Weight (Franklin County); Todd A. Shove (Lamoille County); and Michelle Donnelly (Washington County). The remaining candidates declined repeated invitations to respond over a three-week period, underscoring the lack of transparency and accountability common to many prosecutors’ offices.
The good news is that for many questions in the poll, the responding candidates aligned with the views of a majority of Vermonters. All seven respondents pledged to hold traffic fine forgiveness and criminal record expungement clinics during their first year in office. Six of the seven candidates agreed to release policies and data about their office’s actions and would decline to prosecute minors for petty crimes. Five out of seven supported the opening of mobile overdose prevention sites/services and agreed to set up “Brady lists” to track dishonest and biased police.
All of this is encouraging, especially in light of the fact that, in recent months, some public officials have promoted false narratives about public safety to stoke fear and justify a return to “tough on crime” policies that have failed.
It’s important to recognize that these blasts from the past — built on racist tropes, the criminalization of poverty, and an overreliance on incarceration — are not what Vermonters want. We want solutions to issues like discriminatory policing, record overdose deaths and chronic underfunding of mental health services – no more penalties.
Voters should expect their state’s attorney candidates to reflect their values and be transparent about whether or not they support a smarter justice system that invests in people rather than prisons. If your candidate declined to respond to the ACLU survey, use your voice and ask them directly if they want to uphold the failed policies of the past or bring Vermont closer to a more just, equitable, and holistic.
Jay Diaz is general counsel for the ACLU of Vermont. Opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.