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Police Chief: Criminals Are Running Roughshod Over Our Communities

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MONTPELIER -- The top police officer in Vermont's largest city gave lawmakers a street level view of crime Monday -- and it wasn't pretty.

Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling laid it on the line in no uncertain terms for legislators at a hearing of the Joint Corrections Oversight Committee at the Statehouse, saying criminals are "running roughshod over our communities."

"Since I last saw you, we've had the worst year in history," Schirling said. "The conditions on the street are challenging."

Schirling oversees 100 officers at the largest municipal police department in the state. He is seeing increased drug problems and violent crimes, a tough economic climate pushing people into crime and awareness that the prison system has space constraints.

However, the main issue, he said over and over again, is a revolving door criminal justice system that means there is little consequence for all but violent, higher-level crimes.

"That is the message that's resonating on the street," he said. "You're operating with impunity in a huge cross section of what happens in the system."

To make his point, Schirling ran through a litany of recent offenders in the city who have cycled through the courts to go back out and commit the same crime, sometimes even the same day they were arraigned.

"I could go on with literally dozens of these cases," he said, then added one more for emphasis: He told lawmakers of an alleged burglar arrested over the weekend for numerous burglaries, who had a previous record for burglary, who was released and now is the suspect in more burglaries.

"It's not working," he said flatly. "We have to deliver a swift and harsh message that that type of conduct will not be tolerated in Vermont."

He was even more direct about the relationship between drugs and criminal behavior. Drugs, he said, is the "No. 1 thing that drives crime" in Burlington.

"We need a hammer for violent offenders or folks who come to Vermont to deal drugs. That is increasingly a problem," he said.

From his political seat as Rutland's mayor, Chris Louras, a former legislator, delivered much the same message about what he called "the revolving door thing."

"It's clear that anecdotally, the folks in the street in the Rutland area understand as long as they don't commit certain types of crimes, they will not be locked up," he said.

Louras also elaborated on incidents in which criminals commit the same offenses, such as burglary or theft, over and over again -- with no consequence.

"That resonates in the community that the system is broke," he said.

The two ostensibly came to testify about so-called justice reinvestment programs, which are locally-based plans funded by the state that are designed to cut the recidivism rate.

Schirling made it clear he did not want to imply the criminal justice system "is coming apart at the seams." He said some programs are working, such as diversion, which sidetracks offenders using innovative methods outside the court system to prevent repeat crimes -- and wipe out a criminal record -- if offenders meet certain standards.

"Diversion has had great success in Vermont over the decades," he said.

Transitional housing for offenders newly released from jail is an effective crime prevention program, Louras said. When former inmates have stable housing, repeat offenses decline and the system can better cope with a host of issues such as drug dependency that can tip someone back into crime, he said. He said education and counseling and treatment were essential to any success in dealing with crime.

"You can't just lock people up and expect the problem to go away," he said.

Schirling said in his opinion the crux of the problem is that there is no consistent "carrot and stick" system for criminals. The "word on the street" is that criminals can refuse alternative justice programs because they know there's little risk of punishment.

"This is my thesis. If you have a credible threat [of punishment], you will be less likely to have to use that credible threat," he said.

But his officers and all the street outreach workers are hearing that offenders don't see any incentive to go into alternative programs, he said, because of a "lack of meaningful sanctions." According to Schirling, in Chittenden County, the state's attorney's office is running the reinvestment programs with a $100,000 legislative grant.

For the system to work, Schirling said there needs to be a clear continuum of consequences so offenders know "what's coming behind is not as pleasant.

"What we're failing to do collectively is we've not created a system that has predictability to it," he said. "If you use a marketing analogy, we're not marketing that we have a justice system that is meaningful in delivery of services and outcomes."

Offenders are aware the state is trying to limit how many people end up in Vermont jails, he said.

Louras said communities that decline to help, while others such as Rutland bear the burden of transitional housing, may need to be forced to step up to the plate. It's a view that is a definite shift in his thinking -- one that's come from being "hit over the head with a brick" by his police chief, he said.

Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, said the essential dilemma she sees is that the courts, states attorneys and law enforcement are separate entities and there is no way to create a "100 percent consistent system."

"Obviously, it's a huge problem," she said.

In morning testimony, corrections officials said an effort to integrate justice and law enforcement information technology is just getting under way. Snelling said the new system would cost about $10 million.

Schirling said his department is finding it incredibly difficult to get court data that allows police to assess what alternative justice programs work and what don't. The information is in different systems and has to be entered manually, "which is an enormous amount of work," he said.

"We need to make an informed decision rather than a random decision, and right now I think we're stuck with a random decision," he said.

Monday's discussions about alternative justice are part of a larger picture in a legislative effort to ease the high cost of incarceration. Charts provided by corrections Monday showed no significant rise or drop in inmate populations but showed that the state is seeing a spike in detainees who clog up jails while waiting for court disposition.

Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg, said he appreciated Louras and Schirling's frank message about what their communities are experiencing, and he appeared frustrated at the tangled and overlapping jurisdictions that underlie the criminal justice system.

"We've got to get these people in the same room at the same time to talk with each other," he said.


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