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Weighing compassion and consequences

Candidates for county prosecutor debate criminal justice

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the July 6 debate between Chittenden County State’s Attorney candidates Sarah George and Ted Kenney hosted by the Lake Champlain Chamber was their only debate before the Aug. 9 primary. In fact, there have been two other debates, one hosted by the Vermont Interfaith Center and another hosted by the CCTV Center for Media and Democracy.

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

The law is the law, but the state’s attorney holds a lot of sway over which laws are enforced and to what extent. 

The contest between Williston residents Sarah George and Ted Kenney for the Democratic nomination for Chittenden County State’s Attorney is largely about that idea — what in criminal justice parlance is known as prosecutorial discretion. 

While George’s efforts to bend the system toward a more restorative and equitable one over her five years as the county’s lead prosecutor has been praised by racial justice and criminal justice reform advocates, it has also frustrated some in law enforcement and the business community who claim her approach has led to increased crime.

Last Wednesday, regional business groups got together to host a debate between the two candidates ahead of the Aug. 9 party primary election. The winner of the Democratic primary could face a challenger from another political party in the November general election, but no other candidate has yet to announce a bid. 

The debate was sponsored by the Vermont Retail Grocers Association, the Burlington Business Association, the South Burlington Business Association and the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce. It was held over a lunch hour with the candidates and participants zooming in remotely. Stewart Ledbetter of the local NBC affiliate served as moderator. 

“Members of the organizations hosting this event have expressed dismay over the current state of affairs,” Ledbetter said, summarizing questions he received from business owners for the candidates. “They feel unsafe and unsupported as victims of harassment, theft and, in some cases, assault.”

George has worked as a county prosecutor for more than a decade. Her experience has convinced her that the current criminal justice system is “incredibly flawed.”

“I have found very clearly that our system does not work for a lot of people who come through it — victims, witnesses and people who are charged,” she said. “I am working to change the way our system does things, working to change the status quo and implement policies that actually impact people’s lives in a hopefully better way.”

She doesn’t dispute that crime is on the rise, but blames the inter-related issues of lack of child care, food insecurity, homelessness and drug abuse — exacerbated by the impact of Covid.

“Prosecution … in a lot of these cases is not going to solve the problem,” she said. “What those folks need is services in this community. They need help. And of course they need accountability but that looks different for each person.”

Kenney, a former criminal defense attorney, described his approach as “restorative justice with consequences.”

“There needs to be more consequences,” he said. “That is not necessarily throwing people in jail right away, but it is making sure these people are put into the criminal justice system more than they are now … I’m running to give people hope that there is public safety and compassion in the system. They are not mutually exclusive.

“There does have to be actual consequences that are worse than the thing that you get by committing the crime. Otherwise, from a cost-benefit analysis, there’s no reason not to commit the crime.”

The candidates debated George’s policy of declining to prosecute charges that stem from police officers stopping drivers for minor traffic offenses. While Kenney argued that minor traffic stops can lead to police taking drunk drivers off the road, George said they target people of color at a “massively disproportionate rate.”

“The bias is there, and we need to find ways to limit the number of people of color being pulled over,” George said. “It’s very easy for some people to say it’s not a big deal to get pulled over for a traffic violation, but for some people it is. They are disproportionately impacting and traumatizing people of color in our state.’ 

The Chamber won’t endorse a candidate, Government Affairs Manager Austin Davis said, but will release a summary and analysis of the debate before the primary. The full recording of the debate is available at www.lccvermont.org.

“It’s an interesting race,” Davis said. “There’s a lot the candidates agree on. They’re both committed to criminal justice reform … Sarah seems more (convinced) that equity requires not enforcing laws, while Ted is more about enforcing laws equitably.”

In closing, Kenney, who is the vice chair of the Williston Selectboard, pledged, if elected, to try new policies, and tweak or change policies if they are not working. 

“We have a new situation with the increased rate of crime, and different kinds of crime require new solutions,” he said.

George defended her approach and asked for support to keep working to reform the criminal justice system.

“My policies may not be super popular to everybody, and I understand that, but they are based on evidence and data, and the real fact that people of color and poor people in our community are disproportionately impacted by our system, and it is harming them and it is actually  making all of us less safe,” she said. “Our community needs to step up and give people the basic needs that they are severely lacking. That will make all of us more safe.”

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