Repeat offenders: Some argue change the bail law, others advocate for resources

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Burlington law enforcement officials say they would like to see changes to the Vermont bail law as repeat offenders continue to be released on conditions they inevitably violate.

They, along with public defenders, think more mental health resources need to be made available in Vermont.

Here are some statistics from Burlington’s most prolific repeat offenders, via the Burlington Police Department:

Michael Reynolds, age 40 as of mid-August: 894 contacts with police since 2011, 118 arrests. On August 19th, he’s accused of punching a business owner.

Nicole Coolum, age 35 as of early October: 220 police contacts since 2012, 79 arrests since January 2016. She’s accused of spitting at an officer’s face while being escorted to a detox facility.

Jason Breault, age 41, a transient, charged with 29 crimes since December 2016. He’s charged with assault of a police officer, after a knife on his person injured a police officer during a September 30th incident. He has 20 sets of active pre trial conditions of release.

You can see the video of the incident from the police body cameras below.  Please note that we have edited out any inappropriate language. 

The state has filed a motion to hold Breault without bail. State’s Attorney Sarah George says Breault is a danger to public safety.

At a motion hearing on October 20th, the injured officer, Officer Derek Hodges, testified.

“Do you feel fortunate that the injury wasn’t worse?” asked deputy state’s attorney Kelton Olney.

“Yes,” Officer Hodges replied, who suffered a puncture wound to the hand.

“I think the fact that we are repetitively encountering Mr. Breault in court and law enforcement is repetitively encountering him with respect to these conditions indicates that he is not capable of following them,” said Olney to the judge, arguing that Breault should be held without bail.

“The other explanation is that he, as some others in this town, are being targeted by law enforcement…The revolving door with Mr. Breault and others in this community is not a factor of the failure of the judicial system,” said Peggy Jansch, Breault’s longtime defense attorney.

According to the Department of Corrections, as of October 19th, there are 23 people in custody with violations of conditions of release listed as a crime committed (either as a sole crime, or a secondary or tertiary crime).

There are 408 state detainees total.

More common – defendants are released with new conditions and violate them.

“All they have to do is show a track record of showing up. As long as it’s likely that they’re going to show up to court, the court is going to make conditions to release them,” said Burlington Deputy Chief Shawn Burke. “Where it seems to get a little sideways, is when a person is continually released on these conditions of release and they violate them almost immediately. And now they have 5, 6, 7, 10 arrests for violating those conditions of release. That’s when police are saying ‘enough is enough’. I realize that runs against the bail law but I’m certain that the architects of the bail law didn’t have this equation in mind.”

Both Deputy Chief Burke and Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George say repeat offenders make up a large portion of their work.

“Bringing them back, processing them, citing them for court, they’re coming to us, we’re issuing that paperwork, we’re sending it down to court, they’re coming in for arraignment,” explained George. “That’s a lot of resources every single time but you can’t not do it.”

The union representing Burlington police officers took a harsher tone in a statement following the Breault incident.

“This incident is just the most recent example of the judiciary system in Chittenden County failing to rein in a violent criminal who should not have been on the streets to begin with,” wrote David Clements, president of the Burlington Police Officers’ Association. “Too often, the system has failed to rein in a violent criminal who should not have been on the streets to begin with.”

“We have to follow the existing law,” explained Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson. “That’s what we’re obligated to do and that’s what we do. Quite frankly, the police union letter as I read it, they certainly do not understand the bail law in Vermont. The simplest explanation I can give you is that we can only impose cash or monetary bail if the individual before the court presents a risk of flight, in other words fleeing the jurisdiction of the court. In terms of people violating conditions of release, generally speaking, they don’t pose a risk of flight and conditions of release are imposed to ensure public safety.”

George agrees, the issue is with the law not with the judges.

“The judiciary is following the law. The bail statute is pretty clear about that so I don’t feel like they’re not doing enough,” she said. “The frustration is that you can put conditions of release in place all day long and if an individual is not a risk of flight there just isn’t a lot of teeth on them and people violate them all the time with no consequence.”

Sen. Dick Sears (D – Bennington), chair of the Vermont Senate Committee on Judiciary, says issues pertaining to bail and pretrial services will be a focus when the legislative session begins in January.

“Many of the people that are repeatedly violating conditions of release have either substance abuse problems or mental health problems and rather than using the criminal justice, we may be better off using those systems but we have a real disconnect in Vermont and we need to improve that,” he said.

According to Vermont’s Mental Health Commissioner Melissa Bailey, there is growing demand in Vermont for intensive inpatient or secure residential treatment coupled with gaps in resources.

“They’re in court because of the mental illness and/or addiction because it’s untreated,” said Sarah Reed, staff attorney at the Chittenden County Public Defender’s Office.

Reed is embedded in the county’s mental health court in Burlington.

Defendants involved in the mental health court program are diagnosed with serious mental illness, plead guilty and enroll in treatment.

They must be deemed competent to participate and show up to court every other week.

If successful, their charges are either dismissed or diminished.

“The goal is to get them engaged in the community,” said Reed, who says the program works. “That’s a huge part of the work that we do is having them build their own healthy community but to engage in the community as well.”

Reed estimates there are about 25 people in the mental health court system right now.

In Reed’s eyes, these so-called repeat offenders are members of the Burlington community who, above all else, want to be viewed as valuable.

One priority: more housing for Burlington’s homeless.

“Seeing these folks as members of our community and not wishing that they would go away and not be seen by really seeing what would happen if we really started to embrace them,” said Reed. “I also think that we need to be understanding in implementing deescalation tactics.”

Police Chief Brandon del Pozo applauded the officers’ “incredible deescalation & restraint” in a tweet after the Jason Breault incident in September.

Those tasked with defending people like Breault aren’t as impressed.

“That nobody got shot, doesn’t mean deescalation,” said Reed. “Nobody raising their voice or nobody being harmed or it being conveyed to somebody that they’re valuable – that’s deescalation.”

“Our officers are intelligent and very very engaging and really have taken the de-escalation training,” said Deputy Chief Burke. “But there’s something missing in the system that has this number of people on the street suffering a crisis that is so apparent.”

As of Friday, Jason Breault was still behind bars, we learned on Thursday that Breault is being held without bail. 

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