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Corrections office may return to the county

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — The recently disbanded Middlebury Probation and Parole Office could soon be re-established in permanent, full-time space in the Addison County Courthouse, state and local officials confirmed last week.

It was in late January that Middlebury Probation and Parole office left its rented space in the Carbro Building on Exchange Street — a casualty among a series of fiscal year 2009 state budget rescissions. The four probation/parole officers staffing the office were reassigned to Corrections offices in Rutland and Chittenden counties, while an administrative assistant position within the office was eliminated.

The closing of the Middlebury office spurred sharp criticism from Addison County lawmakers, prosecutors and human services officials, who feared the move would result in less oversight over offenders and fewer protections for crime victims.

Critics shared their views during a meeting in Middlebury last month with Vermont Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito. In addition, local lawmakers met earlier this month with House and Senate leaders, as well as Gov. James Douglas, to decry the Probation and Parole Office closure and other recent reductions of state services in Addison County.

The complaints appear to be on the verge of paying some dividends.

Pallito confirmed during a telephone interview on Wednesday that a recent review of the state budget indicates the Probation and Parole Office could be re-established in Middlebury on a “cost-neutral” basis, by re-allocating money from Vermont’s court administration account to the Department of Corrections account.

Officials had estimated the state could save $100,000 annually by closing the Middlebury Probation and Parole Office. Pallito had cautioned that while he wanted to see the office re-established, the state could not do it by spending more money.

That wouldn’t be the case, since the state would simply be shifting resources within the general fund.

“It seems like a reasonable solution,” Pallito said during the interview. “Once they find a space (in the courthouse), we will move forward.”

Chip Epperson, manager of the Addison County Courthouse, said he and state officials have already identified space for Probation and Parole — two second-floor conference rooms. Those rooms do not need major renovations; the state would be responsible for furnishing and equipping them.

Epperson did point to one potential “sticking point” in the arrangement, however. He believes the full-time presence of Probation and Parole will generate more traffic within the courthouse and therefore may trigger the need for an extra security “screener” position. Epperson said traffic within the courthouse has already grown in recent years with the presence of the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) every Thursday and every other Wednesday.

An additional security screener, which would be furnished through the Addison County Sheriff’s Department, would cost around $35,000 per year, according to Epperson. He anticipates some of that cost could be shared by the DMV.

“We know the benefits (of having a local Probation and Parole Office) and we are doing what we can to help out,” Epperson said.

Pallito said he will know more details about the courthouse move — including staffing levels at the re-established Probation and Parole Office — by the end of the month.

Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, hopes to see Probation and Parole in the county courthouse as soon as possible. Jewett is a veteran member of the House Judiciary Committee and a Middlebury-based lawyer.

“We’re going to reserve judgment until we see the outline of service they are re-establishing, but I believe the commissioner is working in good faith to re-establish the service we need,” Jewett said.

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