Jim Kenyon: Furlough Program Under Scrutiny

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Vermont has made good use of its furlough program over the years to reduce the state’s prison population, help offenders readjust to living in the outside world, and save taxpayer dollars.

But as an incident last Sunday suggests, it may be far from perfect.

Shortly before 10 a.m., 48-year-old Wanda Sanville was shot and killed in front of family members at her home in South Royalton. Police took her estranged husband, Frank Sanville, into custody later that day. On Monday, he’s scheduled to be arraigned on a charge of first-degree murder.

At the time of the shooting, Frank Sanville, 70, was on furlough — a sanction used in Vermont that allows offenders to live in the community instead of behind bars while under the supervision of the state’s Department of Corrections. Sanville was residing in White River Junction and, as a condition of his furlough, volunteering at a local social service agency.

Sanville’s rap sheet includes a 2012 domestic assault conviction. He was released from his most recent prison stint in January 2017. Last month, after Wanda Sanville accused him of hitting her in the face, a judge sentenced him to furlough instead of more jail time.

With hindsight being 20-20, it was the wrong call.

But not unjustified. By the age of 70, many violent offenders have aged out of criminal activity and don’t require locking up. The assumption is that they no longer pose a threat to public safety.

Vermont’s furlough program is unique. Along with judges imposing furlough at the time of sentencing, the DOC can release offenders before their prisons sentences are completed. They just can’t leave the state.

Currently, the state has 987 offenders on furlough compared to nearly 6,000 on probation and parole. The regional probation and parole office in Hartford has a dozen officers supervising about 550 offenders, including 50 on furlough.

Notwithstanding last Sunday’s “horrible tragedy,” Bill Soule, who oversees the Hartford office and has spent 37 years with DOC, thinks Vermont’s furlough program is key to criminal justice reform. It’s an intermediary step between prison and parole that allows DOC to impose conditions, such as curfews and electronic monitoring, on offenders who go off the rails without having to wait for the courts or parole board to take action.

DOC can even steer an offender who has suffered a substance abuse relapse into treatment. “That’s a much better option than sending them back to jail,” Soule said.

Vermont already has more people behind bars — 1,726 as of Friday — than the state’s six prisons can accommodate. To ease overcrowding — and save money — Vermont is warehousing 230 of its 1,570 male inmates at a Pennyslvania state prison. (And we all know how well that’s working.)

Last week, I stopped by the Hartford Dismas House, which has been providing affordable, high-quality transitional housing to recently released offenders since 2014. (Sanville wasn’t a Dismas resident.)

Curently, six of Dismas’ eight residents are on furlough. In prison, inmates are told “when to get up, when to shower, when to eat,” said Renee DePalo, Dismas’ house director. After they’re released, “they have have to figure out more things on their own,” she said.

To live at Dismas, they must get a job, pay rent, and meet their DOC conditions of release, which can include mental health and substance abuse counseling. Dismas also requires that they help out with chores and sit down for dinner regularly with other residents and community members.

Laurie Leuci, one of two women living at Dismas, arrived from the state’s prison for women in South Burlington a few days before Christmas.

Her crimes — domestic assault, DWI and disorderly conduct — can be traced back to her 20-year struggle with alcohol. Leuci, 43, often started drinking in the afternoon, putting away a 12-pack of Natural Light, Budweiser or whatever was on sale, and continued well into the night.

Leuci told me that she hasn’t had a drink since Sept. 11, 2017 — the day of her last arrest. She could have stayed in prison, watching TV mostly, until completing her sentence in June. Instead Leuci accepted DOC’s furlough offer, which got her out six months early.

It was a good deal for Vermont taxpayers as well. Last year, the per capita cost to incarcerate a female inmate was $73,652 — more than a year at Dartmouth. At Dismas, which relies largely on state grants and private donations, the annual cost is about $20,000 per resident.

Leuci takes Advance Transit to weekly meetings with her probation officer and is subject to breathalyzer tests any time of day or night. She’s also attending AA meetings.

“I’m really trying to do what I can to change my life,” she said.

Another Dismas resident helped her get a job at a nearby convenience store. When not working, Leuci can often be found in Dismas’ kitchen, cooking up homemade spaghetti sauce, lasagna and stuffed shells. “Anything Italian,” she said.

After getting out of prison, she was reunited with Buddy, her 11-year-old Siamese cat who stayed with friends while she was locked up. “He’s the only thing I’ve kept from my past life,” Leuci said. “I’ve lost everything else.”

And with the help of Vermont’s furlough program, she’s getting a chance to start a new life.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.