Vermont DOC Freeing Inmates After Judge's Ruling | Off Message

Vermont DOC Freeing Inmates After Judge's Ruling


Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield - FILE PHOTO: TOM MCNEILL
  • File photo: Tom McNeill
  • Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield
The Department of Corrections has approved early releases for 84 people from custody or from community supervision and is reviewing its entire 10,000-person caseload after a judge ruled that the agency’s method of calculating sentences was flawed.

Eleven inmates have been released from prison earlier than scheduled, and DOC supervision ended for 73 people who were on probation or on furlough, DOC Commissioner Andy Pallito told Seven Days

Many more inmates and probationers likely will be released earlier than scheduled in the coming months. Pallito said the 84 people were identified within the first 250 cases that DOC has reviewed since receiving the June ruling from Bennington Superior Court Judge John Wesley.

“It’s hard for us to know really how many cases it affects,” Pallito said.

It is unlikely that any inmate convicted of the most violent crimes will be released early, Pallito said. The inmates and probationers affected by Wesley’s ruling are typically serving sentences for lower-level crimes. Sentences are being reduced by a couple of weeks to several months, Pallito said. 

The ongoing review is expected to be discussed at a meeting Thursday of the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee in Springfield.

The early releases came after Wesley ruled in favor of Nathaniel Serre, a former inmate who sued DOC alleging that the agency had improperly computed his sentence.

In 2012, Serre was convicted of burglary. As part of a plea deal, he was technically sentenced to three to five years in prison. But Serre spent only 51 days in custody before he was put on probation. In February 2013, Serre was arrested again. He quickly pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor charges, including obstruction of justice and violating his probation — which meant he was eligible to serve the full three-to-five-year sentence from 2012.

As commonly occurs in cases with multiple convictions, a judge ordered Serre to serve the sentences concurrently rather than consecutively. The judge also said that Serre should receive credit for the time that he served in prison before pleading guilty.

But a judge’s decree is never the final step in sentencing. The DOC takes plea agreement and judicial rulings and crafts an inmate’s “effective sentence.”

Because the obstruction of justice charge carried the longest minimum and longest maximum sentence, the DOC deemed that to be Serre’s “effective sentence.”

“In other words, DOC treated the obstruction of justice conviction as though it were the only conviction that could impact the actual time [Serre] spent in jail,” Wesley wrote.

The DOC credited Serre with time he spent behind bars before pleading guilty to obstruction of justice. But it did not give him credit for the 51 days he spent behind bars on the 2012 burglary case.

Wesley said that was a mistake.

“DOC has expanded the concept of a ‘controlling sentence’ to credit calculations and determined that only time spent in custody in connection with the ‘controlling sentence’ can be credited,” Wesley wrote. “Time spent in custody awaiting sentencing on other offenses, whose terms are concurrent to the ‘controlling sentence,’ has been disregarded. Such a practice has no basis in the plain meaning of the statute or case law applying it.”

The DOC did not appeal the ruling, Pallito said, because by the time it came down, Serre had been freed.

Wesley’s decision has led DOC to hastily grant freedom to 11 inmates in similar situations, including Burlington resident Brian LeClair. He was sentenced in September 2012 to three to five years for charges including burglary, gross negligent operation of a motor vehicle and violating his probation.

Wesley’s ruling meant that LeClair, 34, had been improperly deprived of 270 days of credit. LeClair said he had mounted his own legal challenge to how DOC had calculated his sentence, but had grown frustrated by a lack of progress. Then on August 18, a caseworker told him that he was being released that day from the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury, LeClair said.

“I didn’t know which way was up or which was down,” LeClair told Seven Days. “I was confused. I never thought in a million years it would happen. It was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had. I received my freedom.”

LeClair said that thanks to family support, he has already found a job and has a car. But he was concerned that more inmates will be suddenly released into the world without the support network he has enjoyed.

Pallito, who is leaving his post Monday to become the state finance commissioner, said it’s a valid concern. The DOC, forced to act with haste, has been unable to provide the recently released inmates the full range of services the agency usually offers to help smooth the transition back to society, the commissioner said.

“We’re trying to give them something to go to, to have services, but it’s tough,” Pallito said. “In the end, we’ve got to let them go.”

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