Kenney to seek state’s attorney spot

Observer and VTDigger report

Williston Selectboard vice chair Ted Kenney confirmed his candidacy for Chittenden County State’s Attorney this week.

In a news release Monday, Kenney said he will oppose incumbent Sarah George in the Democratic primary in August. The state’s attorney role is the lead criminal prosecutor for the county.  

The contest is sure to spark debate about the criminal justice system in Vermont’s most populous region.

George has attracted national attention for setting progressive policies aimed at reforming the system. She has done away with some conventional tools used by prosecutors, such as asking for defendants to be held before trial unless they post a cash bail — “all it does is hold poor people in jail and let rich people out,” she said.

She has also been an advocate for safe heroin injection sites, a policy recently adopted in New York City as first in the nation. Detractors contend her reform-minded approach has spared culpable people from punishment.

Kenney describes himself as a fellow champion of social equity and restorative justice, but questions George’s decisions with some of the violent crimes that have occurred in the county during her five-year tenure.

“The criminal justice system needs reform to remove disparities based on race and poverty, but we don’t have to choose between safe streets and reform, or between compassion and fairness,” Kenney said. “We can have all of those things, but we can’t have any one of them without the others.”

George’s prosecutorial discretion has also garnered criticism from Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and Gov. Phil Scott, who appointed her as state’s attorney in 2017. Kenny said he has also heard concerns about George’s approach from local police. 

“The police officers I’ve spoken to have expressed a degree of frustration about the lack of prosecution for repeat offenders,” Kenney said. “They’ve also expressed a degree of frustration with the lack of conditions of release on people who are charged with violent crimes. They’ve raised other issues as well, but those are the two that really stick out to me.”

Ahead of the party primary in August, the candidates are likely to spar over how they would respond to a reported rise in retail theft around Chittenden County. Store owners have spoken out against George for not taking up misdemeanor shoplifting cases in court. By diverting them to restorative justice programs, they say, she does not deter people who repeatedly steal items of less than $1,000 — the level at which retail theft becomes a felony.

In laying out his platform, Kenney seized on those complaints.

“(Restorative justice programs) simply are not suitable for every single instance of retail theft and burglary,” Kenney said. “Repeat offenders should face the criminal justice system.”

George welcomed Kenney’s entry into the race and said she looks “forward to a campaign that focuses on facts over fear, and one that highlights the important issues facing our community.”

“I have implemented bold policies that promote safe, healthy and strong communities, and we’re just getting started,” George said in announcing her run for re-election. “We have so much more work to do … to build a fair and equitable system for all.”

Kenney’s law career began in 1991 and has included a focus on defending suspects in criminal court; he once led the state’s criminal defense lawyers association. He’s never worked in a criminal prosecutorial position, however, he notes that he has worked as a plaintiff in civil cases where the burden of proof is on him.

Kenney said his candidacy would have no impact on his continued willingness to serve on the Williston Selectboard, where he has had a seat for 12 years.

“I’ve had a fulltime job the entire time I’ve been on the selectboard and managed my responsibilities for the selectboard, and I don’t expect it to be any different either while I’m campaigning or if I’m successful and get the job,” he said.