Jim Kenyon: The proper course of justice in Chelsea

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 7/10/2021 9:41:43 PM
Modified: 7/12/2021 10:07:38 AM

Considering the town of Chelsea spent more on road salt ($15,084) than policing ($12,265) last year, residents who argue that not enough resources are going toward fighting crime might have a point.

The town of about 1,300 residents relies primarily on Vermont State Police for coverage, but the nearest trooper barracks is 20 miles away in Royalton. Chelsea also has an annual contract with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department that pays up to $12,500 for deputies to spend about four hours per week patrolling and responding to calls.

In today’s world, some residents say these arrangements are insufficient. They draw a direct line between the opioid epidemic that plagues Vermont — and every state, for that matter — and a rise in property crimes. People battling substance use disorders oftentimes resort to robbing and stealing to support their addictions, the thinking goes.

The Chelsea Selectboard is taking residents’ concerns seriously and is open to giving voters more of a say in police spending at next year’s Town Meeting, Chairman Lavar Cole said in a phone interview last week.

The demand for a greater police presence began in earnest following, of all things, an unpopular arrest.

Wayland Childs, a 35-year-old auto mechanic whose repair shop on Route 110 is across the street from Chelsea’s library and town hall, faces multiple charges, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

After his garage had been broken into more than once, Childs allegedly attempted to take the law into his own hands. On May 20, he drove to a motel in nearby Barre, Vt., to confront the 40-year-old man who he believed was behind the break-ins.

When Barre cops arrived — after being alerted that trouble might be brewing outside the motel — they found Childs holding his suspect at gunpoint on the ground, according to court documents.

Barre police say the man acknowledged that he had a substance use problem and tried to sell a computer stolen from Childs’ garage. (State police are investigating the break-in, but no one has been charged.)

Since Childs’ arrest and subsequent plea of not guilty, folks in Chelsea and neighboring communities have rallied to his defense.

Red, white and blue signs dot the front yards of farmhouses, mobile homes and businesses along Route 110. “We’re fed up with crime in our community. We stand with Wayland,” the signs proclaim.

Which presents something of a paradox.

Many Americans say they support getting tough on crime. Then a case like Childs’ comes along. A hard-working guy with no history of legal trouble gets entangled in the criminal justice system and faces potential prison time.

Suddenly, a lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach to reducing crime doesn’t seem so sensible.

I stopped by Childs’ garage to ask him about the outpouring of support. He politely declined to talk. In a walk around town, however, it became clear to me that Chelsea had Childs’ back.

“I don’t agree with what he did, but I fully understand why he did it,” said Emily Betts Newman, a longtime Chelsea resident with a “We stand with Wayland” lawn sign in her yard.

While supporting Childs, Newman can also sympathize with people who run afoul of the law due largely to struggles with substance use. She lives down the road from the Orange County Courthouse, where she was the court clerk until her retirement a decade ago.

As the court’s gatekeeper, Newman saw firsthand the toll that substance use disorders took on people’s lives. “There should be some sort of punishment for their crimes, but that shouldn’t be the only thing,” she told me. “They need help. Part of the problem is there aren’t a lot of long-term residential treatment centers that are affordable.”

Bob Purvis runs the Turning Point Center of Central Vermont, a Barre nonprofit that offers peer support to people trying to overcome drug and alcohol use.

It’s important to recognize that substance use disorder is a disease, but people must still take responsibility for their actions, said Purvis, an attorney before he changed careers.

In a small town with no cops of its own, spending money to beef up policing is “not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “People need to feel safe in their communities.

“The question becomes, what we do with people once they’re caught? Prison often isn’t the answer.”

What is?

The restorative justice movement, which has gained footing in Vermont, is probably our best hope of curbing mass incarceration.

Instead of focusing on retribution, restorative justice emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. That often means sitting offenders and victims at the same table. Together they decide how offenders should go about making amends.

“It doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for incarceration,” said former Windsor County State’s Attorney Bobby Sand, who’s now on the faculty at Vermont Law School where he helped launch its Center for Justice Reform.

But there’s plenty of evidence, Sand said, that “putting people in jail only increases the likelihood that they’re going to end up back in jail at some point.”

A restorative justice model rooted in holding offenders accountable to their victims and communities can reduce crime and recidivism, Sand said.

Which brings me back Wayland Childs. He’s been charged with a gun crime and two other offenses. By my reading of Vermont criminal statutes, if convicted of all three, he faces up to 11 years in prison.

But a lapse in judgment when emotions apparently got the better of him shouldn’t put Childs behind bars. His case seems ideal for a restorative justice approach.

Something his supporters might consider the next time they want someone wrestling with a substance use disorder put away for stealing a laptop.

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

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