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Jim Kenyon: Prison is sometimes easier than treatment in Vermont’s corrections system

  • 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: 10/19/2019 10:29:46 PM
Modified: 10/19/2019 10:29:44 PM

On Thursday, Denise Hill went to prison, but not because a prosecutor or judge necessarily thought that’s where she belonged.

Hill asked to be locked up.

She’s spending 20 days at the 177-bed Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, Vermont’s only women’s prison, in South Burlington.

I realize that’s not a lot of time, but why would anyone give up her freedom, if she didn’t have to?

Hill’s case is a window into the broken state of Vermont’s criminal justice system. Given a choice between serving prison time and being under so-called community supervision, it’s becoming “more and more frequent” for offenders to opt for incarceration, said Brice Simon, a Stowe, Vt., attorney, who represented Hill in an early stage of her case.

Court records indicate that Hill, who turns 32 next month, suffers from a substance use disorder and anger management issues that she’s either unable or unwilling to get help with. A case could be made that Hill’s time would be better served in a secure facility that focuses on treatment instead of punishment. But Vermont — like many states — doesn’t have such a place.

So Vermont taxpayers will spend about $4,500 to incarcerate Hill for less than a month. (The last time I checked, the state spent an average of roughly $80,000 annually per female inmate.) And what are the odds that she comes out better than she went in?

“Prison is not the place to get people the help and treatment they need,” said Ashley Messier, a community organizer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.

Messier has experience. She spent nearly two years at Chittenden Regional for drug-related offenses.

I haven’t met Hill, but I’m guessing she considered a brief prison stint the best of the bad options available to her.

How did it reach this point?

In January 2018, Hill was among a group of people partying at her home in Royalton. According to a Vermont State Police affidavit, an argument ensued when Hill wanted the music turned down.

One thing led to another. Hill was accused of trying to choke a woman, who was left with a mark on her neck. Hill was then seen slashing one of the woman’s car tires with a pocketknife, according to police.

In 2018, Hill was sentenced to up to one year in prison, of which all but 20 days was suspended. She was placed on probation — a form of community supervision — until Aug. 21 of this year.

As a condition of her probation, she had to undergo a “diagnostic assessment” for substance use disorders and mental health conditions. She was found to be “cannabis dependent,” according to court records.

Hill had until July 29, 2019, to enroll in drug treatment and mental health counseling. She didn’t meet the deadline.

No doubt Hill needs to take responsibility for not following through. But was she solely to blame?

I talked with someone who is familiar with the inner workings of Vermont’s corrections system. I learned Hill’s misdemeanor offenses don’t rise to a level that would make her a priority for getting help with accessing social services. It’s possible her case fell through the proverbial cracks.

After being charged with violating her probation for not starting counseling, Hill appeared in Windsor Superior Court on Sept. 30. I wasn’t in the White River Junction courtroom that day, but Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill filled me in on the “unusual conversation” that took place.

In talks with Adam Hescock, Hill’s public defender, Cahill proposed that she put in a few days on a work crew and be given another chance to complete her rehabilitative programming.

Sounds reasonable. Except Hill balked.

“She just wants to do her time and be done,” Cahill recalled Hill’s lawyer saying.

After Judge Elizabeth Mann revoked her probation, Hill was ordered to report to the women’s prison by 5 p.m. Thursday, which she did.

“I’d much rather have had her engage in counseling and stay out of prison, but this is the choice she made,” Cahill told me.

Community supervision “sounds like a really good deal,” but it comes with risks to offenders, said Simon, the Stowe criminal defense attorney.

They can go months, even years, without a blemish on their record. Then their car breaks down or a child gets sick, causing them to miss a counseling session or a probation appointment. Some probation and parole officers have a “hair trigger for violations,” Simon said, which can land an offender behind bars for years while serving his or her original sentence.

Probation and parole officers have “immense power,” said Messier, the ACLU community organizer. Department of Corrections rules can be so rigid that people are put in an “impossible situation to be successful,” she added.

A recent ACLU of Vermont report, titled Blueprint for Smart Justice, cites violations of probation, parole and furlough as a “key driver of incarceration in Vermont.” In 2017, an estimated two out of three admissions to state correctional facilities were for violations of community supervision.

Before Hill went to prison, I called the phone number that she had given the court. It was disconnected. I stopped by her Royalton address listed in court documents. No one answered the front door at the aging mobile home.

“People not wanting to be under the thumb of (probation and parole) is a real thing,” Cahill said. “It is unfortunate, though, when they’d prefer jail to alcohol treatment or anger management counseling. At that point, it really feels like we’ve lost them.”

And when people feel such despair that they choose prison over freedom, we all lose.

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




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