Criminal justice reform: Vermont prosecutor pushes to eliminate bail

The lead prosecutor of Vermont’s largest county is joining a handful of prosecutors across the country who plan to stop using bail as a tool to compel people to show up in court for criminal hearings, according to an announcement Wednesday.

The law stipulates that people facing serious charges like murder and attempted murder be considered eligible to be held in jail without bail. People facing lesser charges must be eligible for release, though they may still have bail imposed.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said she has directed the deputy prosecutors in her office to stop requesting bail for defendants facing lesser charges. Her office is also working with defense attorneys in the state to identify cases prosecuted by her office where bail may be in place so they can return those people to the community, she said.

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George confers with victims' families during the sentencing hearing for Steven Bourgoin in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington on Monday, August 26, 2019. Bourgoin was convicted in the deaths of five teenagers in a crash on I-89 in Williston in October 2016.

Bail in Vermont is currently set by judges for the purpose of addressing a suspect’s risk of flight. Prosecutors and defense attorneys can make recommendations to the judge as to what conditions of release they feel would be most appropriate. Under state law, bail is not meant to address the public safety risk a suspect may pose. Conditions imposed must be the least restrictive possible that still ensure a person comes to court.

“The cash bail system in our country is predicated on the false assumption that people will not appear for court unless an arbitrary amount of cash is paid,” George wrote in a statement. “Research, however, has consistently found this is to be inaccurate.”

How bail adversely impacts poorer, racially diverse communities

George said that bail has become a way to hold people in jail while their case is pending. This especially impacts people who are poorer and cannot afford to pay bail. Historically, many of these poorer, marginalized people have been Black and brown.

Vermont has one of the most racially disproportionate prison populations in the country, George said. 

Judge Edward J. Costello Courthouse at 32 Cherry St. in Burlington, which houses Family Court.

By using bail, “we immediately impact an individual’s ability to maintain employment, housing, custody of children, stable relationships, and roots within their community; and their ability to connect with services is outright barred,” George wrote in her statement.

She added, “Due to the risk of violence within jails and the enormous pressure to accept plea offers just to return home, cash bail creates conditions for more harm and greater potential for further contacts with law enforcement and the legal system.”

George to lawmakers: Ban bail across state 

Last January, George was one of about 80 prosecutors and law enforcement officers across the country who filed a court brief arguing that the use of bail in cases where defendants face lesser charges was unconstitutional and harmed public safety.

Since then, several prosecutors in the U.S. have said they would stop recommending bail as a tool to compel defendants to show up to court proceedings. One was Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy in Maryland in September 2019 and another was San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in January, according to news reports from the Washington Post and the Associated Press, respectively.

Meanwhile, judges in Vermont have the ultimate discretion when deciding whether to set bail. George is encouraging Vermont’s Legislature to eliminate that use of bail across the state. She argues changing the law would help reduce the prison population and “finally and safely cancel our contract with out of state for-profit prisons.”

Contact Elizabeth Murray at 802-651-4835 or emurray@freepressmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizMurrayBFP.

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