Leahy, Specter take testimony on problems of rural crime

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(Host) Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator Arlen Specter got an earful today on what rural communities need to combat increasingly violent drug-related crime.

They held a Senate Judiciary hearing in Rutland (today / on Monday) and VPR’s Nina Keck was there.

(Keck) Violent crime is rising in many rural parts of the country. But speaking in front of nearly 200 people at a packed conference room in downtown Rutland, Senator Patrick Leahy says violent crime in Vermont rose nearly 10 times the national average.

(Leahy) "The myth is still alive that drug abuse and drug-related crimes are only big city problems. We need a fresh look at drug crime through the lens and the experience of smaller cities and rural communities.”

(Keck) Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter congratulated Rutland on taking such a proactive approach to its crime problem. He joked that he hadn’t seen so many people at a Judiciary Committee hearing since they were discussing the confirmation of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

(Specter) "(laughter) . . . When I go back to Washington and tell my colleagues how many television cameras there were here – Senator Hatch is going to be very angry that he didn’t show up." (laughter)

(Keck) But despite occasional levity, the Pennsylvania Republican didn’t hesitate to ask probing questions to those testifying, like Rutland City School Superintendent Mary Moran.

(Specter) "At how early an age do you talk to children about drugs?”

(Moran) We talk with them at all ages in a developmentally appropriate age.

(Specter) “Okay, but what’s the earliest age that you start?”

(Moran) “When they’re in kindergarten and first grade. . . in terms of …”

(Specter) “First grade?”

(Moran) “Not so much in terms of the drugs per se, but in healthy living and healthy choices.”

(Specter) “When do you start on drugs?”

(Moran) “We have a formal program on drugs in 5th grade with a DARE program that Chief Bossi helps.”

(Specter) “Could you do it sooner?”

(Moran) “We probably could."

(Keck) Moran pointed out that many programs run by the schools to engage students from 3 to 6 p.m., the most dangerous time of day for drug-related activity, have been cut and she says more federal support is needed. Police officials say cuts in federal law enforcement funding, such as the Community Oriented Policing Services – or COPS programs – has also taken a toll. Senator Leahy laid the blame squarely with the Bush administration.

(Leahy) "Among other things we’ve been told that we need the money for the Iraqi police forces. Frankly, this senator feels we ought to worry a little bit more about our own police forces in the United States.”

(Keck) During a break in the hearing, some in the audience wondered how much the event could really accomplish, besides providing a photo op for those attending. But panelist Hal Colston, founder of NeighborKeepers, a non profit, anti poverty organization in Burlington, was more optimistic.

(Colston) "We had an opportunity to present to two very influential senators who are very well connected in various committees that can rethink how to redirect resources because, at the end of the day, it’s about resources. So if we can convince them that this is a problem that we can solve. And I think we heard that in the various testimonies, then this was a good opportunity to make that connection."

(Keck) And he says hopefully, the resources will come.

For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Sens. Arlen Specter and Patrick Leahy confer after a Judiciary Committee meeting in Washington last year.


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