Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy hosted a forum on criminal justice reform in Burlington on Monday with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. The former mayor of Newark is a long-time advocate of reform and is co-sponsoring federal bills to modernize the criminal justice system.
It was standing room only in Contois Auditorium as people gathered to hear the two Democratic Senators and a panel that included Burlington’s mayor and police chief, Vermont’s governor and advocates discuss what is being done to address criminal justice reforms.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a former prosecutor, opened the meeting by noting that Vermont has recognized that everyone has a stake in implementing restorative reforms. “We have an over incarceration problem in this country. We’re locking up more people than anybody else in the world. It is not making us safer. It is not making us better as a society. And of course there is a tremendous cost to it.”
Senator Cory Booker, a fellow Democrat, says the U.S. accounts for a quarter of the world’s prisoners. “Our prison population is overwhelmingly poor. It is overwhelmingly addicted. It is overwhelmingly mentally ill and victims of trauma and sexual abuse. And it is overwhelmingly, disproportionately I should say, minority. This is not something that we can't fix. And so what I'm excited about is the innovators that are around me right now. People that are beginning to show a way out of no way. People are showing that common sense can rule in our country.”
Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan said the first advice he received was from Senator Leahy and it has inspired how he approaches each case. “He said: ‘Exercise restraint.’ That is the key to this system, certainly from prosecutors. A willingness to say no, not to charge, because it's not always the conviction. It's the arrest record, it's the charge that changes people's lives. It really comes down to empathy and compassion.”
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger talked about 21st century policing and the local law enforcement agencies that are on the front lines of criminal justice. “We have recommitted ourselves to getting our officers on the streets in Burlington, building relationships with Burlingtonians. We were one of the first in New England to deploy body cameras on all of our officers. And we have asked Chief del Pozo to come forward with a Burlington plan for twenty first century policing and I think it’s going to be an important step forward for the department.”
While Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo is pleased to see reforms in Vermont and Burlington, he noted that many police officers across the country are frustrated. “We have the opportunity to do two things. Reconcile police missions as collaborative endeavors. I think the second opportunity is to re-conceive policing itself. It's not just about the equipment and the weapons on your belt. It's about a whole host of problem solving techniques. Discretion is the greatest power the American police officer. Police officers right now, to be candid Senator Booker and Senator Leahy, feel alone. And that is one of the obstacles they have and to say that you will solve these problems together I think that's where we want to head.”
Vermont has been implementing reforms, including a just passed Ban the Box measure that prevents employers from requiring information on a job applicant’s criminal record prior to an interview.
Following the forum, Senator Booker says while Vermont is ahead of many states in crafting reforms, it must not lose its sense of urgency. At the federal level he is working to bring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to the Senate floor for a vote. “I'm frustrated frankly. Even the bill that we have that's advanced again last week, it's not as bold as I would like it to be but it's a first step. And the first time since a lot of horrible criminal justice actions in the eighty's and ninety's, the first time that we're stopping moving in the wrong direction. And last week was an encouraging week for me.”
Following the forum, Senators Leahy and Booker toured the King Street Center, a children, youth and teen community center.