The top prosecutor of Chittenden County (Burlington), Vermont is ending a policy that she says is a form of modern debt bondage, making her the second in the nation to do so.
On September 16, State’s Attorney Sarah George announced that her office will no longer request cash bail under any circumstances. The shift follows the first-of-its-kind elimination made by newly elected San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin on January 22.
“Due to the risk of violence within jails and the enormous pressure to accept plea offers just to return home, cash bail creates conditions for more harm and greater potential for further contacts with law enforcement and the legal system,” wrote George in a press release. “These impacts only make our community less safe and only serve to hold poor people in jail on amount of bail we know they cannot afford.”
More than 300 people are currently detained in the state’s jails, according to the Vermont Department of Corrections. The number is small in comparison to other states, in part because of Vermont’s small population. But the state’s overall incarceration rates, as calculated by the Prison Policy Initiative, surpass those of many countries similar to the United States, like the United Kingdom and Canada.
Despite the new policy, Vermonters in Chittenden County may still be hit with a price tag on their freedom. Judges can still impose cash bail despite prosecutors’ objections. George’s office will do what it can to overturn it, though, like by joining any motions brought by the defense to strike the bail, according to the policy.
Her policy does not mean an end to pre-trial detention. Instead, as she wrote, requests to keep a defendant behind bars will be “based on public safety, not wealth.” Detention may be sought in a “limited cases where someone is charged with a violent felony, the evidence of guilt is great, and we believe that person poses a serious public safety threat that cannot be immediately negated.” But the decision to not seek cash bail in these circumstances sets her apart from other so-called progressive prosecutors like Rachel Rollins of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, and Larry Krasner of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
While Boudin may have been the first in the country to take such a progressive leap, George’s policy avoids one controversy in the San Francisco policy: the use of algorithms to determine whether to keep someone incarcerated. Such number-crunching is regarded by experts as inherently racist due to the policing data from which it draws.
“We will not be using a risk assessment tool regarding requests for pre-trial detention,” George told Filter. “We don’t have one in Vermont that has been thoroughly tested/validated so I didn’t feel it necessary to try to find one. Vermont’s statutory requirement for a hold without bail order is very clear and provides for a public safety assessment with safeguards in place (evidentiary hearing within 7 days, Court overview, Defense council assigned etc.).”
Regarding the San Francisco policy, George said, “I want to be clear that I didn’t look into the risk assessment tool used in San Francisco and I have no opinion about its validity.” The Chittenden County State’s Attorney Bill of Values states that “We recognize that systemic racism and other forms of discrimination are pervasive in many social institutions, including the legal system, and we pledge to identify these disparities when addressing criminal behavior.”
The use of such instruments in San Francisco was not up to Boudin, said a spokesperson. “The SF Superior Court controls the use of risk assessment instruments. The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office has no control over the use of the tool,” Rachel Marshall, Boudin’s communications director, told Filter. “In fact, DA Boudin has been a vocal critic of many of the shortcomings of risk assessment tools. In San Francisco, all parties to every case are provided with a risk report and it is the District Attorney’s Office’s policy to treat those reports as just one data point among many in making pretrial release decisions.”
George’s office will also be taking steps to avoid Vermonters’ arrests in the first place. For example, if a person fails to appear for court, prosecutors may opt for non-arrest warrants or summonses.
“Vermont’s Constitution requires that “no person shall be imprisoned for debt”….and yet 100s are every year. We won’t continue to be complicit,” wrote George on Twitter. “Cash Bail is Ransom.”
Photograph of Sarah George via the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs/Public Domain