By LEE J. KAHRS
BRANDON –– With Vermont still reeling from the killing of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett in Randolph last month, the Brandon Police Department next Tuesday will host a community forum on sex offenders, state statute, and the state Department of Corrections (DOC) sex offender registry.
The Bennett case has sparked a statewide debate over how sex offenders are handled by the DOC, their punishment, their treatment, and most importantly, their supervision.
“The focus of this forum is to give people information on how the sex offender registry works,” Brandon Police Chief Chris Brickell said. “There are things people have misconceptions about.”
The forum is scheduled for Aug. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Fire Department.
Brooke Bennett disappeared in Randolph on June 25, triggering Vermont’s first Amber Alert. Exactly one week later, on July 2, Bennett’s body was discovered in a shallow grave on property owned by her uncle, Michael Jacques, a convicted sex offender and the last person to see the girl alive. He has been charged with kidnapping and other charges may be pending.
Now, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie and others are calling for a “Jessica’s Law” here in Vermont meaning that convicted sex offenders would face a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison. The city of Barre last week passed an ordinance establishing a 1,000-foot buffer zone around local schools and playgrounds where convicted sex offenders new to the city are forbidden to live or spend time.
Brickell said a DOC official will be on hand at the Brandon forum to explain the department’s sex offender protocols, the registry and to answer questions.
“People don’t know the corrections criteria they have to meet to get on the registry, so if we can have somebody give nuts and bolts answers, why not have someone discuss what the program’s about and what kind of monitoring goes on after an offender is released into the community?” Brickell said.
THE REGISTRY: LOCAL OFFENDERS
The DOC’s public, online sex offender registry lists only the top 400 high-risk offenders, but there are roughly 2,500 registered sex offenders living in Vermont, and their names, addresses and specific offenses are known only to police.
The online sex offender registry lists three offenders in Brandon. Brickell said there are seven others not listed on the registry, including one convicted sex offender who is about to be released from prison and wishes to return to Brandon.
The registry, which is at http://126.96.36.199:8080/sor/, lists 11 offenders in Addison County, each in a different town.
Brickell said there has to be a public safety need in order for a sex offender’s name and town of residence to be placed on the registry. Many offenders have done their time, received treatment, and have passed the 10-year statute of limitations without re-offending.
The criteria for being listed in the online registry include being convicted of an aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault on a minor, having more than one sex offender conviction, or being designated as being non-compliant or at a high-risk to re-offend.
A sex offender deemed non-compliant has not gone through sex offender treatment.
“Yes, we do keep our eyes more on the non-compliant offenders,” Chief Brickell said.
Brickell said the registry is working while at the same time protecting the civil rights of the offenders who are compliant and have not re-offended.
“It’s important for people to know this,” he said. “There is a reason the Legislature made it that way. It’s a balancing act. If they’ve done their time, they’re entitled to live their lives. You have to balance the rights of those people with the safety of the public.”
Brickell said the Legislature adopted the measure not to publicize all sex offenders’ addresses and photos because they did not want the public taking matters into their own hands.
“They didn’t want vigilantism, people hunting them down,” the chief said. “They were very careful, and now, as much as I hate to say this, through an error in judgment (Jacques) was released early and was put in a position to commit this horrible crime and people are outraged by this.”
SILENT VICTIMS, FAMILY VICTIMS
Michael Jacques was released from prison seven years early for good behavior on a past sex crime conviction. Brickell said the reasons behind his release should be examined, but that enacting a 25-year minimum sentence may not be the right way to reform Vermont’s sex offender laws. Brickell has been involved in sex crime investigation since 1987 and he said the new maximum would make it harder to get convictions.
“How many times do you hear of a sex offender who was a stranger?” Brickell asked. “The majority are family members, relatives, caregivers. They have a long time to build a relationship and groom the victims, then they are technically not suspects. You will have a lot more children who will need to testify in order to convict, and you also have parents who won’t believe their child.”
Because such a high percentage of sexually abused children know their attackers or are related to them, they can shy away from reporting it if they believe doing so would lead to a long prison term. It’s a complicated issue, where victims often protect their attackers.
Brickell said in Brandon he gets roughly one to three sexual abuse reports per month, but not all turn out to be legitimate cases.
“Kids end up as pawns in a custody dispute,” he said. “Some end up as regular abuse cases, or it’s believed to be sexual abuse, but we don’t have enough evidence or any evidence at all. Unfortunately in these cases, it’s on person’s word against another.”
Brickell said when dealing with a child victim, the report comes too late.
“Very often the crime is reported much later than the date the abuse happened,” he said. “Usually it’s a trigger event that causes a child to say something to someone. It’s horrible when you have kids too scared to talk about it.”
That’s where mandated reporters come in. They are people who, in their professional lives, have regular contact with children, the disabled, senior citizens or other vulnerable people, and are required to report whenever financial, physical, sexual or other types of abuse have been observed or are suspected. They are counselors, police officers, social workers, nurses, doctors, day care workers, and foster care workers. Brickell said his department has a solid relationship with officials at Neshobe Elementary School in Brandon.
“They are very good as far as reporting any kind of abuse they see at school,” he said. “Most mandated reporters are very good about reporting.”
Another argument against the 25-year minimum is that, according to the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, roughly half of child sex abusers are children under 18, and long mandatory sentences won’t deter them since the sentences usually aren’t imposed on juvenile offenders.
Brickell said he has not read Barre’s new 1,000-foot buffer zone ordinance, but he believes there are loopholes and problems with the law.
“A thousand questions come to mind,” he said. “How do you tell when a non-registered sex offender moves there? Why should you prohibit them when they’ve done their time? Would you prohibit a crack dealer that way? What makes them different? Because they prey on younger victims? So do the dealers.”
Brickell said the public also may be lulled into believing their children are safe.
“Will it create a false sense of security?” Brickell asked. “The image is that a bad guy is lurking in the playground when in reality it’s going to be someone they know or are related to. There are just a lot of things that will be issues.”
While some believe that enacting a buffer zone ordinance in the cities will force sex offenders to move to smaller towns, Brickell said he’s not too worried about Brandon should Rutland move in that direction.
“We might have more sex offenders come here, but they would probably go to an area that has a lot less law enforcement than Brandon,” Brickell said.
The spotlight on Vermont’s sex offender laws coupled with the planned reorganization of the DOC prison system to save money is a bit of unfortunate timing. Brickell said DOC and the Legislature will have their hands full figuring out how to reform both areas.
“It’s a money game,” Brickell said. “If it costs too much money to house somebody, what does it cost if they are released and they re-offend? More court time, more law enforcement and investigation time, more victims equals more therapy, more medical bills. Is that more than it costs to keep that person incarcerated? I think we will see the Legislature discuss this long and hard.”
Brickell said Vermont’s sex offender discussion crosses many areas of state and local government, human behavior, child psychology, public safety and civic responsibility. He said his department will keep tabs on the offenders they know of and he hopes state officials can come to some kind of agreement on how to proceed in the wake of Brooke Bennett’s murder.
“The problem is, the system is so overloaded and it’s just going to get worse with downsizing,” he said. “What makes you think they’re going to monitor these people any more than they already do?”