PLEASE NOTE: portions of this candidate's response are taken verbatim from a collective response coordinated and submitted by the Department of State’s Attorneys & Sheriffs on behalf of a group of current Vermont state's attorneys. Specifically, at least 16 of this candidate's 20 answers include language from the collective response submitted by the Department (questions 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20).
Candidate name: Dennis Wygmans
Campaign mailing address, email & phone:
4 Worth St., South Burlington, VT 05403
CRIMINAL JUSTICE PERSPECTIVE AND PRIORITIES
1. Do you believe that Vermont should reduce its current incarceration rate? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and describe what role, if any, State’s Attorneys play in determining how many people are incarcerated or under some form of criminal justice supervision in this state?
Yes. Prosecutors play a large role in determining whether an individual is incarcerated or under supervision. We are tasked with representing the people of the State of Vermont to ensure the prosecution of the laws passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor. We are also constrained by sentence structures passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor in making sentencing recommendations to the sentencing court. Furthermore, while prosecutors exercise discretion in making sentencing recommendations, our options are limited by public expectations based upon the passage of these laws, as well as by all-too-limited access to options for alternative resolutions to cases. We need an overhaul of our criminal statutes, as well as sentence reform, in order to properly address this issue.
2. If elected, would you commit to implementing policies and practices that will reduce your county’s incarcerated population by a specific percentage by the end of your term? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation. If “Yes,” please identify your goal and what specific combination of reforms you anticipate will achieve this goal.
No. I cannot commit to such a practice, as it is impractical. Unfortunately, there are offenders who present as such a danger to our community that incarceration is necessary. It is difficult to predict who those persons are, and at what rate they may offend in the future.
I can promise, however, to continue to do what I can to ensure that outcomes are individualized to the needs of the offender, and this practice could be more widespread if prosecutor’s offices were sufficiently staffed to undertake such a time-consuming endeavor. We have for too long relied on one form of addressing criminality, and, until recently, the alternatives to incarceration and DOC supervision were minimal. I have worked closely with the public defender and the criminal court in Addison County to expand the availability of access to alternative solutions, including: restorative justice, treatment courts, and mental health courts. We have been told that the resources are not available to implement the latter two options. In response, we have forged partnerships with Chittenden County to, at least, make these options available to offenders in Addison County. But, this is not a good solution, as transportation is an issue. As to alternative solutions, I have used restorative options at an unprecedented rate in our county. At most recent count, the rate is 25% of the caseload. We could expand upon that if we had more resources in our county, such as embedded social workers and drug/alcohol counselors, as well as restorative/rehabilitative housing as an alternative to incarceration.
3. In past legislative sessions, Vermont’s Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs has opposed criminal justice reform measures in the legislature while supporting tougher criminal penalties. Will you commit to speaking out in support of legislation to reduce incarceration, even if it means taking positions that are counter to the Department’s? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation.
This question cannot be answered with a “Yes” or “No” because the premise is false. The Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs has a long history of supporting criminal justice reform and alternative justice programs, including: extending family court jurisdiction to 18 and 19-year olds; expanding expungement eligibility and automating the process for expungement; reducing the rate of pre-trial detention; as well as issues relating to sentencing reform. Furthermore, we plan to take a more aggressive approach toward offering and promoting reform ideas in the near future. I have always spoken out when my opinion differs from the Department, and I will continue to do so. I
have also advocated to other State’s Attorneys whose opinions may differ from mine to consider alternative viewpoints. It is much better to reach out to those within the Department with whom I have differences, than to cast dispersions at them. Thus far, I have found that we can often reach common ground, or at least compromise in a way that addresses the bulk of the concern.
FAIRNESS IN CHARGING, BAIL, PLEAS, AND SENTENCING
4. Do you support a policy to reduce the use of money bail as a condition of pretrial release to ensure that no one is incarcerated solely on the basis of their inability to pay? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation.
It is already current policy that no one is incarcerated solely on the basis of their inability to pay. In Vermont, bail is imposed for purposes of ensuring one does not flee prosecution. It is not to be used as punishment, and in lieu of resolution of a case. There are many reasons why a person may be incarcerated who have bail placed upon them. An inability to pay is one of them. Other reasons include, what I term “feel good bail”, wherein a judge does not like to impose a hold without condition where it is merited under the law, but instead imposes a bail that the defendant could never pay; another is where an experienced defendant chooses not to pay bail in order to serve his sentence as a resolution is being worked out. It is my goal to ensure that these are the only circumstances where someone is held because they didn’t pay bail. I have worked with families to reduce bail to an amount they can afford that will both ensure their loved one is released AND will appear in our court. We often do not request bail, or even that an individual be held without bail in serious violent felony cases if they have been cooperative with police and have no history of non-appearance in court.
5. Would you commit to developing and implementing written guidelines for charging and plea bargain practices to ensure prosecutors do not overcharge or unfairly pressure defendants into pleas? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation.
I believe in individualized outcomes that address an offender’s criminality, rehabilitation, mental healthcare and substance abuse healthcare needs, as well as the nature of the offense. The root cause of the nationwide incarceration problem is due to an overreliance upon set standards, such as sentencing guidelines and draconian drug laws. To adopt a guideline, however well intentioned, would ignore the need to handle each case individually. Our office is small, I charge the majority of crimes, and everyone who works in my office is aware of my philosophy and does their best to implement it.
Moreover, this question inappropriately assumes that prosecutors overcharge and unfairly pressure defendants into pleas. As public servants, the state prosecutors are bound by ethical rules and guided by the interests of fairness and justice. The question ignores the role of the judiciary, the defense bar, and juries in the criminal justice process.
6. Do you support increasing reliance on Vermont’s restorative justice system? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation and if you answer yes, please say what would you do to increase participation in that system for the benefit of victims and survivors as well as offenders.
Yes, with appropriate means to ensure participation, compliance, and the safety of victims. In fact, I would like to see it expanded to restorative/rehabilitative housing, wherein offender’s mental health and substance abuse needs can be more effectively managed and provided for. I would like to see embedded social workers and substance abuse counselors all across the state to help divert people from the criminal justice system altogether. I would like to see a mental health response commensurate to the need, with a system for addressing individual needs populated by practitioners, not prosecutors, wherein the safety of the individual and the members of their community is appropriately addressed.
7. In assessing sentencing options, would you consider alternatives to the Field Supervision Unit (F.S.U.) form of post-release supervision that do more to reduce re-incarceration rates for technical violations? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation.
We always do. I have made clear to the prosecutors in my office that FSU is to be used in circumstances where all other options have been exhausted for the individual offender. However, the Field Supervision Unit is a program designed to allow people who would otherwise be incarcerated to live in the community. We believe it is appropriate that there be close supervision of these individuals, and we are not aware of inappropriate reincarceration based on technical violations. The Department supports the work and values our partnership with the Department of Corrections. We would look to more dialogue with DOC and other interested stakeholders to address this issue if it is a problem.
ADDRESSING RACISM IN VERMONT’S CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
8. Do you believe prosecutorial practices contribute to racial disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system, including disparities in charging decisions, bail recommendations, diversionary program placements, and plea bargains? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation, and if you answer yes, what if anything would you do to address those disparities?
No. Vermont State’s Attorneys and their staff – including in Addison County – are very cognizant that our actions and decision-making must be free of bias and discriminatory motives. We strive to ensure that our work, and that of our staff, is bias-free, and have provided training to our staff by professionals in the subject of implicit bias. Moreover, it is the extreme rarity that I am aware of the race of an offender until they have already been charged and have appeared in court.
9. Will you commit to collecting and making publicly available relevant data and statistical information on bail and charging decisions, pleas, convictions, and placements in diversion programs, while accounting for race, gender, disability, and other characteristics? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation or other measures you would implement to promote transparency in your office.
Yes, to the extent that our IT system can reliably collect and report such data, and verify its accuracy by cross-matching with the appropriate partner agencies such as judiciary, defender general and law enforcement. We would examine the issue of aggregated vs. disaggregated data so that individuals who have been involved in the criminal justice system are not adversely impacted by publicly-reported data. Much of our work (charging decisions, diversion referrals, and bail arguments) is already open to public review.
10. Would you decline to file charges where evidence indicates that a police officer engaged in racial profiling or other racial bias? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation.
Probably. I would also work to remove that person from active policing until appropriate measures had been taken to ensure that it not happen again. If after remediation, the character of the officer was such that they were unable to achieve as bias free approach as possible, I would act to ensure that he or she did not police Addison County. However, I also would have to examine the merits of the case, including the seriousness of the offense; whether other evidence independently corroborates the offense; and if there is a victim in the case who has been substantially harmed.
PUBLIC HEALTH APPROACHES TO ADDICTION
11. Do you support a public health-centered approach to substance use and addiction that emphasizes decriminalization and harm reduction, increases access to treatment, and does not involve prosecution for drug possession? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation, and if you answer yes, what specific strategies would you support, both inside and outside the criminal justice system, to implement that approach?
Generally, it is most appropriate to direct persons involved in substance abuse and suffering from addiction issues, to treatment. Today, most individual possession charges are reduced to misdemeanors and referred to Diversion, reserving felony charges for situations of sale or distribution. The criminal justice system can be helpful in addressing addiction issues, in that treatment can be mandated as part of a sentence or court diversion program. I have adopted a model of prosecution that emphasizes treatment with the goal of successful outcomes for the individual, and risk reduction for the individual and in the community. However, our response is woefully inadequate, as we could intervene before an individual is ensnared in the criminal justice system if only we funded embedded social workers and substance abuse counselors in our law enforcement agencies statewide. This practice is effective, and it saves money and lives. Furthermore, we need restorative/rehabilitative housing to address the needs of individuals whose everyday life skills have diminished to the point where they cannot be successful on their own.
We need a mental health system that replaces prosecutors with practitioners, but that also affords protections to our communities and community members from harm from the few of our mental health patients who act out destructively and/or violently.
12. Do you know how many people prosecuted in your county are currently incarcerated post-conviction for an offense in which addiction was the driving factor? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation.
No. Before becoming a prosecutor, I was a defense attorney. I had a contract with the public defender, and I knew many of my clients suffered from addiction. But, most were unwilling to share this information with me. There is a great deal of shame and distrust relating to addiction and our response to it. Also, there is currently no system in place to collect such information wholesale when a person is charged with an offense. While our legislature devised a means of trying to tackle this problem with pretrial screening, many defense attorneys vehemently object to the practice as an invasion of defendant’s privacy. In Addison County, we lucky to have a defense bar that is aware of this tool and utilize it regularly to assist offenders to gain access to treatment. Our office is cognizant of the challenges addiction brings to addressing criminal offending and rehabilitation and strive to engage in a practice that provides necessary services and understanding to individuals who commit offenses and struggle with addiction.
TREATMENT FOR PEOPLE WITH MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
13. Would you commit to enacting policies to divert defendants with mental health issues away from the criminal justice system and into treatment and support services in the community? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation.
Yes, to the extent that funding and the law permit. However, we do not fund much of what needs to be funded, such as embedded social workers and substance abuse counselors to divert individuals from the criminal justice system altogether; such as access to mental health services in a way that removes one from the criminal justice system into a system run by practitioners that also addresses the health, welfare, and safety of the individual and the community.
14. Do you know how many people prosecuted in your county and currently in DOC custody have a mental health issue, including but not limited to a serious mental illness or other mental health condition? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation.
No, as there is currently no system in place to collect such information, and individuals may elect to withhold this information from the public record, the court or their defense counsel. We are cognizant of these challenges, and helping the person address mental health issues as part of a case outcome is important to prosecutors. I do know that current research places the figure at between 45 and 65 percent.
HOLDING LAW ENFORCEMENT ACCOUNTABLE
15. Would you commit to assigning special prosecutors authorized to investigate and prosecute officer-involved shootings and other use-of-force cases, and cases of police misconduct? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation.
No, unless the circumstances would clearly justify such an assignment. The independent reviews by the (affected county) State’s Attorney and Attorney General’s Office have been effective and fair. Furthermore, the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council has been granted broader authority in very recent years to decertify law enforcement officers who engage in improper actions, and the media has won cases for greater information disclosure and transparency. With these partners, and increased oversight, the system should work effectively to protect the public from abuses.
16. Do you support a policy requiring a criminal conviction before forfeiting property, including for third parties’, and regular reporting on all civil assets seized by law enforcement, including how seized assets were spent or used? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation.
Yes. Vermont law already requires a conviction, and civil forfeiture is rarely utilized.
MINIMIZING COLLATERAL CONSEQUENCES OF INCARCERATION
17. People with a criminal conviction can face long-term barriers to housing and employment among other collateral consequences as a result of having a criminal record. Would you commit to implementing policies to mitigate collateral consequences? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation.
Yes. State’s Attorneys are critically aware that a person’s engagement in the criminal justice system will likely have adverse effects on their options for employment, housing, and family relationships. The goal of successfully reintegrating the person back into their family supports, community and society is critically important, and reduces recidivism. This year, the Department supported a bill automating the expungement process so that qualifying individuals no longer have to hire an attorney or pay court fees in order to have their record cleared. Moreover, I agree to seal and/or expunge every case that qualifies, without exception.
18. Would you commit to requiring prosecutors to consider the potential collateral consequences to children and families in making prosecutorial decisions—especially the decision to seek a prison sentence for a parent or a minor—and to use their discretion to avoid adverse consequences for children and families whenever appropriate? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation.
State’s Attorneys already consider the potential collateral consequences of conviction to children and families when exercising their prosecutorial discretion. We have at times crafted resolutions that lessen the likelihood of incarceration where such incarceration would lead to destitution or homelessness. However, individualized outcomes require the necessary staff to learn of each individual’s and their family’s circumstances. Many of our State’s Attorney’s offices are not adequately staffed to always engage in such a practice. Prosecutors must also avoid discriminating against defendants solely on the basis that they happen to be childless.
19. Would you commit to implementing guidelines for prosecutors to consider immigration-related consequences of prosecutorial decisions and to use their discretion to avoid adverse immigration-related consequences for noncitizens whenever appropriate? Please give a clear “Yes” or “No” and any explanation.
No, to formal guidelines, but yes, to requiring staff to be aware of the potential adverse impact that prosecution may have on non-citizens; however, in cases with violent crimes and serious felonies, such selective prosecution and/or leniency does not serve the public’s interest. Nonetheless, we have always worked collaboratively with defense counsel to ensure that adverse immigration-related consequences are minimized when appropriate.
20. Vermont's Fair and Impartial Policing Policy prevents law enforcement agencies from contacting federal immigration authorities except in limited circumstances, though under statute these policies do not extend to the State’s Attorneys’ offices. Will you commit to limiting communication between your office and federal immigration authorities to instances where your office is presented with a criminal warrant or subpoena?
The State’s Attorneys will operate in compliance with Section XI of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy of December 2017; and operate in a manner consistent with any policy guidance provided by the Governor or Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs.