The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of the ACLU of Vermont.
Sarah George currently serves as the Chittenden County State's Attorney.
Meaningful change in the American legal system begins with a recognition that the entire system is built on systemic racism and classism, and policies that perpetuate the same. Our system and the institutions within it produce disparate outcomes because it was built on the oppression and caging of black, brown, and poor people, and was designed to preserve racial and class order. We must acknowledge that systemic racism and classism exists in Vermont. As a state, we have one of the most racially disproportionate prison populations in the nation when compared to our racial makeup; data has shown that we over-police, over-prosecute and over-incarcerate people of color.
In furtherance of this faulty foundation, 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. Research, however, has consistently found this is to be inaccurate. Under Vermont Law, bail is allowed for the simple and sole purpose of addressing risk of flight, not public safety. However, in practice, it has morphed into a mechanism to hold people in jail while their case is pending. The presumption of innocence is lost for over two hundred Vermonters on account of a single condition: A monetary payment that they cannot afford. Every day in the United States, taxpayers spend $38 million dollars per day to jail individuals who are simply awaiting trial.
When cash bail practices are upheld, we immediately impact an individual’s ability to maintain employment, housing, custody of their children, stable relationships, and roots within their community; and their ability to connect with services is outright barred. 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. These impacts only make our community less safe and only serve to hold poor people in jail on an amount of bail we know they cannot afford.
For these reasons, at the start of 2020, my office started conversations about our practice of requesting bail. These discussions were based on research around the origin of cash bail in our country, the validity and impact of cash bail, our experiences as prosecutors, our Mission Statement, and our Bill of Values. Ultimately, these conversations led to the decision that we would no longer be a part of putting a price tag on freedom and criminalizing poverty. Instead, for all criminal charges filed in Chittenden County, pretrial detention is based on public safety, not wealth. This is one of many powers the elected prosecutors in every county hold. Prosecutorial discretion is the cause of mass incarceration. That same discretion can be used to eliminate it.
If Vermont could find the political will to eliminate cash bail statewide, it would not only allow for the release of approximately two hundred individuals statewide who are being held pre-trial and presumed innocent, but it would allow us to cancel our contract finally and safely with out of state prisons, and perhaps most critically, it will bring us one step closer to closing the gap our racist legal system has created.