The three candidates for Lamoille County state’s attorney started a debate Monday night by defining the job.
Todd Shove, a Democrat from Elmore, said the county prosecutor’s main job is “the administration of justice, including criminal prosecution with punitive sentences,” and addressing the needs of the community, including encouraging rehab measures for those struggling with addiction.
To Elizabeth “Betsy” Anderson, a Stowe Republican, the prosecutor’s role is broad — taking a look at the patterns of a region’s criminal activity and boiling them down to interpret a person’s actions in the eyes of the state’s laws.
“Beyond these facts is a person,” Anderson said, and she thinks the state’s attorney’s task is to use all the tools at his or her disposal to find the right way to handle that person’s crime.
Paul Finnerty, a Democrat from Burlington who has been the Lamoille state’s attorney since 2014, ran down a list of his responsibilities — deciding what the charge should be, will there be bail, is restorative justice appropriate, is an autopsy needed, handling juvenile cases — the list goes on.
“It’s a big job,” Finnerty said. “It’s 24/7. You’re involved in people’s lives from the cradle to the grave.”
Anderson, Finnerty and Shove are competing for a four-year term as Lamoille County’s state’s attorney. Finnerty and Shove, both Democrats, will clash on the Aug. 14 primary ballot, and the winner will take on Anderson, the sole Republican, in the Nov. 6 general election.
The three faced off in a debate Monday night at Lamoille Union High School hosted by the Stowe Reporter and News & Citizen, moderated by managing editor Hannah Marshall Normandeau and news editor Tommy Gardner. About 65 people attended.
The state’s attorney is the county-elected prosecutor representing the public’s interest. It’s his or her job to interpret the laws on a case-by-case basis, as they apply to the defendant in question, and decide what charge that person should face, if any, and what penalties should apply.
But enforcing laws through punishment isn’t always enough, Finnerty said, and measuring effectiveness by the severity of sentences can be tricky.
He said 30 percent of trial judges in Vermont were appointed by former Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, and “sentences are getting shorter and shorter.” At the same time, “our thinking has evolved,” and other tools in prosecutors’ arsenals now include restorative justice and mental health treatment.
But, ultimately, no matter how much a prosecutor thinks a person should go to jail, judges make the decision, Finnerty pointed out.
And judges’ motivations are “as diverse as the colors of the rainbow,” Shove said.
“Jail is not the only tool that we have,” Anderson agreed, but “those who violate the law” should face punishment.
State’s attorneys can also choose to dismiss charges brought to them by police, based on their review of the evidence.
Finnerty has dismissed cases approximately 230 times in the last four years, Gardner said, about on par with Joel Page, who was the state’s attorney for 30 years before Finnerty. Gardner asked candidates whether that’s an acceptable number of dismissals.
Anderson and Shove both said it’s tough to answer that question without knowing the facts behind the cases dismissed.
Some cases can’t proceed without enough evidence, Shove said.
Or, in some cases, court diversion would be more appropriate, Anderson pointed out.
“Violent cases are not cases I will be dismissing or sending to diversion,” she said.
Finnerty said he refers about 30 percent of new misdemeanor cases to diversion, and “the occasional felony.”
He sends driving after license suspension cases to diversion, and is willing to drop more minor charges in a multiple-charge case if the defendant accepts responsibility for the larger charge.
Finally, Finnerty said 80 percent of people charged with a first offense of driving under the influence don’t reoffend, and he typically offers to charge defendants whose blood-alcohol concentration was 0.10 percent or less with a civil license suspension with similar penalties to a DUI, instead of sticking them with a criminal charge that would remain on their record.
“Some people need treatment more than they need conviction,” Finnerty said.
Shove disagreed, since DUI charges build in severity if committed again.
“I don’t think DUI No. 1 is appropriate for dismissal,” Shove said.
State’s attorneys will be on the forefront of shaping enforcement of Vermont’s new law legalizing recreational marijuana use. The law, which took effect July 1, allows possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, two mature plants and four immature ones by people 21 or older.
Since the law didn’t create a regulated market, it’s still illegal to buy or sell marijuana, and it will be up to state’s attorneys to decide what constitutes a “purchase” — does a trade count? What about paying “delivery fees?”
Several counties in Vermont have held “expungement days,” where people with marijuana-related convictions could come in and have them expunged from their records.
Offenses are eligible for expungement if the person committed them before he or she turned 21, or if what they did is no longer illegal.
Would the three candidates in Lamoille County support an expungement day?
“Just because you got caught with it once” shouldn’t affect a person’s life forever, he said.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Finnerty said. He wants to set one up in Lamoille County.
Anderson wouldn’t set up an expungement day, but said people who are entitled to expungement should receive it.
She would look at each case individually, saying some marijuana cases are plea-bargained down from possession of a larger amount, and expungement “could be inappropriate.”
All three candidates said victims and survivors of crimes deserve more consideration in the court system than the brief acknowledgment they get during sentencing.
Finnerty has two victims’ advocates in his office, and said the criminal justice system can be “very frustrating for victims. Things take forever,” and what people usually want most of all is an apology.
Anderson said if she’s elected state’s attorney, “victims are going to be heard. … If I’m offering a plea, I’m going to explain to victims why.”
Shove values victims’ input, and said he’d ask for it.
People with mental health issues often wind up in the criminal justice system, Finnerty said, when they should be referred to treatment or diversion.
Anderson said she’d work with police to make sure people with mental illness get the help they need.
Shove doesn’t think the county has the resources to identify which individuals are struggling with mental illness, and the state’s attorney’s job is to make sure the public is safe.
How will Lamoille County residents know their state’s attorney is doing a good job?
Anderson said her office’s transparency would do the job; Shove said police would be pleased at the justice served in Lamoille County. Finnerty said he’ll know by the lack of complaints his office gets.
Offie Wortham of Johnson asked about students who weren’t eligible for college financial aid because of drug convictions. Should that be allowed, he wondered?
“No one is their worst day,” Finnerty said, and it’s important for prosecutors to understand the collateral effects of their decisions.
Anderson said cases like those are perfect candidates to consider expungement, and Shove called those situations “archaic.”
“It needs to be changed,” he said.
Eden resident David Whitcomb asked how prosecutors would handle a fraud case such as the one that erupted over the EB-5 funding of Jay Peak and Burke Mountain.
They were unanimous — cases of that magnitude need to be tackled by the federal government, which has more resources at its disposal.
A man who didn’t give his name asked which crimes have increased in Lamoille County.
Finnerty named DUI, first offense, and domestic and sexual assault. Shove thinks opiate-related crime is rising fast, and Anderson said drug sales in particular are going up.
“I’m going to be tough on those individuals,” Anderson said of opiate sellers.