By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Local lawmakers and prosecutors are concerned that the impending closure of the Vermont Probation and Parole (VPP) office in Addison County will result in diminished oversight over local law breakers.
The closure of the Middlebury office, scheduled to take effect on Jan. 31, ironically comes at a time when the Vermont Legislature has vowed to intensify supervision of offenders — particularly those convicted of sex crimes.
“I don’t know how less supervision gets you better supervision,” Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton and a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, said of the mixed message he believes is sent by eliminating the Middlebury VPP office.
The Middlebury office was a casualty among $20 million in fiscal year 2009 budget rescissions announced by legislative leaders and Gov. Douglas last month in light of a state revenue shortfall that seems to grow by the month.
Addison County’s Probation and Parole office currently employs five people who, among other things, supervise parolees and monitor people whose court-ordered punishment includes probation. Probation and Parole employees work closely with in-state and out-of-state court officials in making sure offenders are honoring their conditions of release.
But those functions will soon be delegated to the Probation and Parole branches in Burlington and Rutland. Three of the Middlebury office’s workers will be reassigned to Burlington; one will be sent to Rutland; and the remaining post will be eliminated. The person now holding that to-be-cut position has successfully applied for another vacant job within the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC), according to Stephen Hoke, manager of the Middlebury VPP office.
“We still hope to have a presence here, but those details are being worked out,” Hoke said on Monday.
Hoke, who has been based at the Middlebury VPP office since 1977, said he’d like to see the department assign a staffer to the Addison County Courthouse on Mondays (when most arraignments take place) and “maintain a presence in the county one other day per week.”
Andy Pallito, commissioner of the DOC, said closing the Middlebury office is projected to save the state $42,000 through the balance of fiscal year 2009, which ends on June 30. Half of that savings, according to Pallito, is to be derived from no longer paying rent for the VPP office in the Exchange Street building, though the state of Vermont is the major tenant of the structure. The other half of the savings is associated with the staff cut.
Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, questioned the wisdom of closing the Middlebury VPP branch under any circumstances, but particularly in light of what he believes will be relatively modest savings.
“The state is not saving enough money to justify this,” said Fisher, vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee.
There are currently 107 “higher risk” offenders in Addison County who are now being monitored by the Middlebury VPP office, according to Hoke. These people are serving probation or are under parole for offenses that include domestic abuse and sexual assault.
Fisher and other local officials are concerned the DOC won’t be able to watch offenders as effectively from Chittenden and Rutland counties.
“I don’t believe you can supervise parolees as well when you don’t exist in their community,” Fisher said.
Addison County State’s Attorney John Quinn agreed, adding that some offenders may find it very challenging to report to Rutland or Burlington for probation/parole obligations. The longer commute could result in some parolees violating their conditions of release and landing in jail. Addison County-based staff will now also face a longer commute to work.
“I think it’s penny-wise and pound foolish on the part of Corrections,” Quinn said. “I don’t think it was a well-conceived plan.”
Quinn on Tuesday sent a letter to Gov. James Douglas, urging that he direct Commissioner Pallito to preserve the Middlebury VPP office and find other areas in which to save money.
“The decision is, frankly, foolish and will probably result in additional costs to the criminal justice system in the future,” Quinn wrote in his letter.
Corrections officials said that closing the Middlebury VPP office is not a decision they took lightly.
“These are tough times,” Pallito said, of the state’s fiscal situation.
That said, Pallito believes the DOC will be able to competently manage Addison County’s probation and parole clients from Rutland and Chittenden counties.
“We are looking at the caseload and seeing where the offenders live,” Pallito said. He noted a potential advantage to the cut: the Addison County caseload will be spread amongst a much larger Probation and Parole staff in the Rutland and Burlington VPP offices.
“I would not say that moving the office poses a significant public safety risk,” Pallito said, adding that offenders are vetted for safety, housing and other purposes before they are accepted for probation and parole.
But that provides little solace to many Vermonters still digesting the tragic death of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett of Braintree, who was murdered last year. Police say the main suspect in the case is her uncle, Michael Jacques, 42, of Randolph Center. Jacques is a registered sex offender in Vermont.
A special legislative committee will recommend measures to tighten the state’s sex offender laws in light of the Bennett case.
“We’re doing this sex offender bill in wake of the Brooke Bennett case in which we uncovered problems with supervision. Hmmmm… ” Jewett said of the ironic timing of the Middlebury VPP office closing.