Friday, April 13, 2012

Burlington: Crime, Treatment and "Impairment"

Burglaries and violent crime are on the rise in Vermont's Queen City, and the primary reason is substance abuse. That's what Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling told a Neighborhood Planning Assembly.
      During a lively panel discussion on April 12 Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan argued for a balance between accountability and treatment, and outreach team leader Matt Young warned about "serious functional impairment," which involves poverty, culture, entitlements, and mental health issues. Take a look...

“The numbers of the last three years for burglaries citywide look like this,” Burlington Police Chief Schirling reported early in the forum, “247 reported in 2009, 294 reported in 2010, and 380 reported in 2011. So, a substantial increase.”
     Two things are “in play,” he explained. “The first is intractable opiate and substance abuse addiction. Sort of secondary, but quite a bit further behind that, are folks that are I guess for lack of a better word, career criminals.”
     During a question period residents expressed support for police and corrections officials. But some also complained about noise and other “quality of life” offenses, and one resident said some of his friends and colleagues are “talking about leaving because it is at a tipping point.”
The discussion, held during a regular NPA meeting at Edmunds School near downtown, included Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, University of Vermont Dean of Students David Nestor, Champlain College Director of Residential Life Ashley Mikell, Community Corrections District Manager Debbie Thibault, Rain Banbury of Burlington Parellel Justice, and Matt Young, who heads the Howard Center’s street outreach team.
     Donovan agreed with Schirling’s general assessment and said substance abuse is becoming an epidemic in Vermont. “It’s not just a Burlington issue.”
     The prosecutor pointed to a recent comment by Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn that more people are dying in Vermont due to opiate overdoses than from highway fatalities. “And we’re a rural state,” Donovan added. “Our jails are full in Vermont. We have a corrections budget of $140 million and a recidivism rate, depending on who you ask, of over 50 percent.”
     Thibault reported that the number of people under Corrections Department supervision has actually decreased by 14 percent since last year. That is because treatment courts and rapid arraignment have been effective, she said.
     Probation officers, who work in specialized areas, currently have about 30 people on their caseloads.  “With a smaller caseload we can focus on more serious offenders,” Thibault added. She said that should allow more direct supervision, seeing people more often, and more work by community corrections officers.   
     In 2009 the violent crime rate in Burlington was 29 percent lower than the national rate average, according to FBI figures. But the property crime rate was almost 50 percent higher.
     Donovan said the solution is balance. “People who commit crimes must be held accountable,” he argued, “but we also have to look at the back end of putting people in jail” since they will eventually get out.
     “It’s in our collective interest to plan for that release,” he said.
     One obstacle is that Vermont’s treatment facilities have long waiting lists. “And it’s no secret what people are going to do when they’re not getting treatment. They’re going to burglarize, they’re going to rob,” Donovan said.
Young noted that even though treatment is available for most of those who want it, many people who feel disadvantaged “are disabling themselves when they are unable to find employment. They see other people getting disability and they believe a lack on employment opportunities means they are disabled.” The resulting frustrating leads to “acting out,” he said.
     Young said that the state defines this as “serious functional impairment,” while the Police Department and courts are seeing “severe and persistent functional impairment. This is very difficult to address. There is poverty involved, culture, entitlements, and mental health issues.”
Nestor acknowledged that although UVM students are sometimes the victims of crimes, “they may well be perpetrators of crime.” He added the university works with the police and service providers to hold students accountable for crimes committed off campus and get them into restitution programs.
     The list of common “nuisance” or “quality of life” offenses involving students includes noise, open containers and underage parties. Nestor estimates that UVM students are involved in about 250 off campus “infractions” a year. Drugs and alcohol are often involved.
     During the recent mayoral race Bram Kranichfeld, a city council member who sought the Democratic nomination, criticized UVM’s response to noise, vandalism and drug dealing with a memorable line. “Right now they have a more serious internal response to overdue library books than noise complaints,” he charged.
     Ward 6 NPA Co-facilitator Neil Groberg repeated the line as part of a question about whether local schools can do more to make students accountable.
     In response Nestor mentioned the question about whether the school could keep students from graduating if they get into trouble off campus. “We’re asked our legal counsel to look very closely at that,” he said, “and quite frankly, the words comes back that we really can’t begin to make that kind of nexus. We are certainly doing things to hold students accountable.”
     If students don’t pay parking tickets, for example, Nestor said the university checks ticket lists against campus registrations and contacts the students. “We talk about the expectation that the institution has for them to be good citizens,” he said. “We’ve been able to get some good results.”
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