Vermont Puts Nonviolent Criminals to Work

Building contractor Jeff Goodwin is standing in front of the glittering surface of the municipal pool in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. While teen-agers take turns diving into the rumpled iridescent water and younger children wade in the shallow end, Goodwin points out renovations done to the pavilion, a neat little cedar-shingled structure that is maintained by the local Kiwanis club. In March and April, 20 nonviolent criminals contributed more than 1,300 man-hours to the project. Their work, valued at approximately $14,000, was ordered by a community reparations board made up of local volunteers.

“I was a little nervous when the inmates first came to the job,” Goodwin says. “But when they left I had some new friends.”

The convicts on the pool project carved signs, hung sheet rock, built changing cubicles, partitions and wooden lockers, and varnished and stained the exterior of the pavilion. Goodwin is satisfied with their work, most of it semi-skilled labor that would have cost the nonprofit organization $10-12 an hour per man. “These guys had a sense of pride working on the project, and you could really tell,” says Goodwin, who acted as general contractor and is a Kiwanian.

Community restitution is now central to Vermont Corrections, a team effort that requires cooperation between judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the Corrections department, local townspeople and those convicted of nonviolent crimes. “For 200 years we had one product: prison,” says John Perry, director of planning for Vermont Corrections. But even a relatively low-crime state like Vermont suffered from skyrocketing incarceration costs, overcrowded facilities and the public perception that correctional systems were a failure. Burglars who stole $500 television sets were serving a year in prison that cost taxpayers $25,000, Perry says. Today, many such nonviolent offenders “work all day and go home at night. Why should we pay for them to sleep in jail?”

In 1991, Perry was part of a team asked by then-Governor Richard Snelling to come up with “15 great ideas” for reforming Vermont Corrections. What resulted was a Copernican shift, from focusing on the criminal to looking at the criminal offense from the perspective of the community and the victim. “Reparative, as a word, came to us when we were reading the Vermont Constitution, which was written in 1777,” Perry says. In that document, Vermont’s founders stated their intention to move away from sanguinary punishments and establish ways for criminals to make reparations for their crimes. “It was an ‘Aha!’ kind of moment,” Perry recalls.

That epiphany, as well as a public opinion study that indicated 92 percent of Vermonters believe in restitution, helped produce a menu of “intermediary sanctions” steering nonviolent offenders toward work service. Those sanctions currently include short-term restitution (tasks that might be completed in an afternoon), community work service (often consisting of arduous day labor), and a state work camp that is operated in marked contrast to an ordinary prison. Arguably, the most innovative aspect of the changes affecting Vermont Corrections was the institution of 19 reparative boards across the state–where ordinary citizens meet face-to-face with convicted offenders to decide what sort of restitution needs to be made to satisfy the community.

Community decides punishment

In Caledonia County in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where St. Johnsbury is located, the two reparative boards each meet twice a month. (Last year, an article in the local newspaper and word-of-mouth attracted a wide range of volunteers to serve on the boards, which are currently comprised of business owners, store managers, housewives, a certified alcohol counselor, police captain, retired lawyer, retired judge and an undertaker.) New board members undergo approximately 20 hours of state-supervised training; mock hearings are held and sample restitution contracts are executed to give volunteers a sense of what will occur when they decide an offender’s punishment. “I wanted to see how the system works, have some input, and help someone do better,” says volunteer John Gebbie, owner of St. Jay Hardware.

In sessions that are usually concluded in less than an hour, the reparations board meets with individuals who have been sentenced by the court for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses ranging from forgery to unlawful mischief to cultivating marijuana. Through an interview and discussion, offenders are made to understand how their crimes have affected members of the community. Sanctions handed down from reparations boards range from a letter of apology or written essay on the impact of the crime, to a combination of classes, counseling, and/or community service. (Only judges have the power to sentence a criminal to the state’s work camp.) Boards can also arrange a sit-down meeting between offender and victim, if the victim is willing, Perry says. Then a contract detailing the restitution is signed by the board and the offender.

At this point, officials of the criminal justice system are merely observers. “Corrections takes a back seat. We allow the community to take over,” says Bill Gilding, a probation and parole officer assigned to Reparative Services. The board sets the requirements and then decides whether the terms of the contract have been met within the time prescribed, Gilding says. When contracts are breached, the reparations board refers the case back through Corrections to court, where judges have been known to send non-compliant offenders to a supervised work crew or to the state work camp. “You can’t go to any kind of jail without due process,” notes Perry.

Board members rely on common sense, years of life experience and each other when they sit down with convicted criminals. “I’m talking to people who are lying to me daily, so I have a feel for it,” says volunteer Mike Bergeron, a captain in the local police department. “Here the person has to sit in front of us, admit to the crime and put something back into St. Johnsbury.”

But this is no Old Testament retribution scheme. “I think there’s potential for everyone to benefit from a good experience,” says board member John Downs, a retired lawyer. Because his own children overcame minor scrapes with authority when they were young, Downs believes the reparations board should be the final sympathetic stop for many offenders. “I tend not to go too hard on them,” he says.

Cost savings for the state

This particular summer afternoon, Corrections officer Gene Greenwood is supervising a work crew on the grounds of the Caledonia County Courthouse in St. Johnsbury. Looking more like a construction foreman than a prison guard in his blue T-shirt and work pants, today Greenwood has eight men on hand, four of whom are residents of the work camp and require “sight and sound supervision.” The rest are on their own, but all are busy mowing lawns, whacking weeds, trimming brush–saving the county thousands of dollars in landscaping.

“It’s so much more cost effective to have people who are not dangerous work on projects like this,” Greenwood says. According to planner John Perry, the labor from restitution work crews and inmates from the work camp have saved the state, various municipalities and nonprofit organizations more than $1.25 million in the last year.

In Caledonia County, Greenwood’s two work crews paint churches, deliver meals to the poor and elderly, and help staff the wastewater treatment plant, as well as maintain nine city parks, the regional library, 22 fishing accesses within a radius of 60 miles, and four rest areas on the nearby interstate. “We’re not master carpenters or master electricians but we can do a little of everything,” Greenwood says, striding over the courthouse lawn.

Across the street in the prosecutor’s office, State’s Attorney Dale O. Gray is candid in his assessment of reparative justice in Vermont. Framed against shelves thick with the Vermont Law Review and U. S. Supreme Court reports, the energetic, raspy-voiced Gray notes that traditional probation sometimes lasts “until further order of the court, which can be forever.” Under reparative probation, offenders must complete restitution within a relatively short time (there’s a goal of 90 days and the maximum length is six months) and then are discharged–a boon to the prosecutor’s office, which handles 1200 felony and misdemeanor cases a year with only three lawyers.

However, reparative programs are an option that the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and Corrections must agree on before the community boards can do their work. Only a couple of years old, they’re still considered new and some defense lawyers are leery about them, Gray says. Almost 450 cases were referred by the courts to reparative boards across the state between November, 1995 and August, 1996. Those referrals represent between 20-25 percent of the nonviolent cases in Vermont, according to Perry.

Reparations are a “constructive and viable option for our clients,” says Chip Troiano, defense investigator for Sleigh and Williams, a law firm in St. Johnsbury. “Our mission as defense counsel is to keep people out of jail. In doing so, these programs are beneficial.” On the other hand, Troiano points out that the court system, Corrections officials and defense attorneys “do not have a mutual interest. Therefore, we don’t always have mutual agreement” on which option is best for a convicted offender.

Calling the make-up of the volunteer reparative boards “a minor problem,” Troiano believes they occasionally “delve into areas where they don’t have expertise.” If an offender needs counseling for substance abuse or other intervention–a situation that has occurred in reparative board dispositions–that individual “should be on the Corrections track, not the reparative track. That’s what traditional probation is for,” Troiano says.

The state admittedly could have done a better job explaining the reparation options to the defense bar before the program was launched. “Where we failed was, the reparations boards were not marketed to [defense attorneys] before they were in place,” says Bill Gilding of Reparative Services. Attorney Gray advises other states interested in the model to “start the program with each party understanding what the other is going to do.” Truth in sentencing means that prosecutors and defense attorneys believe that Corrections will put people in jail if that’s what a court has decided–they won’t soften the judge’s ruling because of overcrowding or other mitigating factors. As it stands now, a defense attorney’s knowledge of the system “can deep-six the [reparations] program. All they have to say is ‘Pick a jury. We’re going to trial.’ There’s no way we can handle all those trials. These programs need teeth in them to make them work,” Gray says.

Troiano agrees, but mentions again the difference between the two sides in the advocacy process. “Going to trial is a defense tactic used pretty much universally. That’s the way business is done,” he says. In spite of that, Troiano likes the idea of making the public more aware of reparative programs, suggesting that Corrections submit a monthly report to local newspapers detailing how much money the county has saved through community restitution. He also believes the ceiling should be raised on what sorts of nonviolent offenses are eligible for the reparations track. “If someone has the option of a quick fine or of completing reparative service, which will take about 90 days, the fine is a lot easier,” Troiano says. “The [offender] always goes the easiest route.”

Work camp isn’t ‘boot camp’

A few miles outside St. Johnsbury, superintendent Dick Bashaw oversees 100 nonviolent offenders at the state’s work camp–the highest level of sanction allowed under the reparations track. The three-year-old Northeast Correctional Community Service Camp is pretty simple, just two barn-like metal buildings that house the staff offices, a gymnasium-sized room divided into four by sliding curtains, and two open dorm- itories. A boiler room with a wood-burning furnace, laundry room, dining hall, kitchen, and storage sheds complete the facility inside the fence–18 feet high with looped concertina wire at the top.

Bashaw says his facility has two main purposes: to pay back the community and to enhance the employability of the inmates. He points out that it is not a boot camp. “A lot of people who come here are amazed that the inmates are not marching around in uniform,” he says. “But if you take a young inmate with low self-esteem and introduce him to the military model…there’s bitterness. I think that inmate gets more from working.” The 105,313 man-hours contributed to community projects, calculated at $4.25 an hour, have saved the taxpayers of Vermont nearly half a million dollars thus far, Bashaw says.

Offenders at the work camp are serving 30 days to a year and are considered very low risk for escape. The average age is 19, and the average stay is three months. (All the inmates are male, and many of them suffer from substance abuse and family problems.) Every man incarcerated in the camp attends classes and workshops, has assigned reading each morning and works a full eight hours, either inside the fence (level one inmates), on the surrounding grounds (level two), or in a supervised community work crew (level three). If an inmate behaves properly, he can earn “good time” for each day he resides in the camp–satisfying a one-year sentence in six months. The success rate of the program is 74 percent, with 18 percent failing for medical reasons like sprained ankles, illness or other routine work injuries, says Bashaw.

Mike Fisher, 38, a soft-spoken electrician from Burlington, Vermont, has served six months at the work camp. His stint in the camp began with five weeks of shoveling snow, then progressed to level two groundskeeping and eventually an assignment in the town of Newbury where he picked up trash. The hard work, he says, “makes your time in here go by much quicker.”

That evening, a teen-age girl kneels on the newly mown grass of the Caledonia County Courthouse, tootling on her clarinet. Shade trees are bowered over the sidewalk, and the lush northern air has taken on the coloration of summer twilight. In the tidy downtown area of St. Johnsbury there’s evidence that Vermont Corrections believes in the redemptive power of community, and has invested considerable resources in that belief. “Vermont has long been a correctional state and not a penal one,” notes defense investigator Chip Troiano.

Meet the Author
But State’s Attorney Dale O. Gray admits there is practicality as well as compassion behind involving the people of Vermont in the justice system. “We can’t just lock everybody up,” he says. “And I’m not sure we should.”

Jay Atkinson is a journalist and novelist living in Methuen.