Douglas backs legislation to hold violent offenders longer than their sentences

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(Host) Governor Douglas is pushing legislation that would allow the state to hold violent criminals even after they’ve served their maximum sentence. The governor and his top law enforcement official say the bill is needed to protect the public. But the proposal has raised concerns among civil liberties groups.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) Eighteen states have laws on the books that allow sex offenders to be placed in court-ordered treatment after they max out their sentences. Public Safety Commissioner Kerry Sleeper said the legislation would not be used often. But he cited an example of a murderer that the state would like to keep off the streets. Kent Hansen, was convicted of killing two women and is due to be released in May. Sleeper says he’s worried that Hansen may commit another violent crime soon after he’s out of jail.

(Sleeper) “We have a ticking time bomb on our hands. Someone who has murdered two individuals in his criminal career [and] has received no treatment. I’m very well aware that there are a number of people in the public who are concerned about his release, and they’re looking for government to help protect them on this issue.”

(Dillon) But critics say that public should be protected through longer jail sentences, not by forcing criminals into involuntary treatment programs.

Allen Gilbert is with the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

(Gilbert) “Everybody deserves a chance to get due process and that’s really what longer prison sentences would do. If there’s a justification for longer sentences and if a judge and or a jury find that to be the case, then so be it. But locking somebody up again after they’ve already served their time just seems to me a fundamental infringement on a person’s rights.”

(Dillon) Treatment programs are expensive – at least $100,000, according to Gilbert. If the bill passes, Vermont may have to send people out of state since the state hospital doesn’t have the ability to treat violent sexual offenders.

But Governor Douglas says these issues should not be an obstacle.

(Douglas) “I don’t believe that infrastructure considerations can stop us from moving forward to make the important decisions about protecting our families and communities. We’ll find a place, we’ll find a way. We need to have this tool available to our prosecutors and law enforcement community to make sure our neighborhoods are safe.”

(Dillon) But a special legislative study committee that looked at the issue does not support the idea of civil commitment of violent sex offenders. Windsor County Senator John Campbell chaired the committee.

(Campbell) “In my looking at it, I will be looking at the legislation to determine whether or not it meets all constitutional criteria, and that it also protects those liberties that we – Democrats, Republicans, Progressives, whatever – that we all hold dear.”

(Dillon) Campbell says there are other steps that can be taken to protect the public. The committee’s report highlights longer sentences, new sex offender treatment programs in prisons and beefed-up prosecution of sex crimes.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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