MONTPELIER – Last month, Governor Phil Scott signed a bill that limits offenders convicted of certain serious crimes from earning time off of their sentence. Brave testimony from victims of crime played a major role in getting the bill to his desk.
“They needed to make a change to make sure that victims were protected and that the State of Vermont had victims’ backs,” said Taylor Fontaine, a Vermont teacher and a survivor of sexual assault.
At her January testimony before a packed house at a Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee, she recalled how her entire body shook when she heard all 12 jurors declare her attacker guilty.
The earned time rule went into effect on January 1, initially allowing all inmates to get up to seven days off their sentence each month they meet a set of requirements. Taylor said it took away the certainty of knowing her attacker would be behind bars for the duration of the sentence, and she relied on that sentence to try and heal to the best of her ability.
Taylor and her mother Pamela Fontaine testified along with JoAnn and Ned Winterbottom, who lost their daughter Laura in 2005 when she was kidnapped, raped and murdered in Burlington. The Winterbottom family, along with friends, have since launched the Laura Kate Winterbottom Memorial Fund, which works to eliminate sexual violence and continue Laura’s legacy by supporting causes that she was passionate about.
Both families testified because they felt blindsided by the changes, and Taylor said speaking out again reopened past trauma and fear.
“Sharing any story for a victim is really hard, because we never feel like we’re going to be believed, so it meant a lot that they believed us,” Taylor Fontaine said.
“It’s been very emotional for all of us even as a family, because you end up revisiting everything you went through before trying to fight for your rights again,” Pamela added.
In the weeks following the January testimony, changes were brought forth that barred serious offenders whose cases have already gone through the judicial process from shortening their sentence.
Those facing charges for a serious crime after the bill went into effect, however, would have a pathway to make their case for earned time. Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan said it strikes a balance with the rule’s initial intent.
“I think this was a good compromise where we ended up,” Donovan said. “I think the policy that underlies this law, the good time law, is a good policy, something I support, but we’ve got to make sure we’re touching all the bases and talking to everybody who’s impacted by it and I’m not sure we did a very good job with that in the first place.”
The testimony of the Fontaine and Winterbottom families left Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Sears and other lawmakers struck by their bravery.
“It makes you realize, and you don’t want to force them to relive that trauma,” Sen. Sears said. “I think this is a good example of the Legislature, the Attorney General, and everyone who worked on that bill coming together to make sure victims’ voices are heard.”