State's Attorney Sarah George to End Cash Bail in Chittenden County | Off Message

State's Attorney Sarah George to End Cash Bail in Chittenden County


Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George - FILE: OLIVER PARINI
  • FILE: Oliver Parini
  • Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George
The top prosecutor in Vermont’s most populous county will no longer seek to hold on bail those awaiting trial for criminal offenses.

In a new policy she intends to release this week, Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George instructs her deputies to refrain from asking the court to set bail as a condition of release.

“Imposing cash bail penalizes individuals based on their financial status rather than on their flight or public safety risk,” she writes, calling the system discriminatory and counterproductive.

Courts typically impose bail — an amount of money one must post in order to be released from custody — in order to ensure that defendants show up at trial. But according to George, the system is fundamentally unfair because it allows the wealthy to go free while others remain incarcerated.

“We’re holding poor people in jail and completely destabilizing their lives and the lives of their families to put them in a place that is always violent and dangerous and prone to create more trauma and harm,” she said in an interview. “It’s just appalling.”

George’s office will continue to request that those accused of violent crimes be held without bail when they pose a threat to public safety, she said. And because judges make the final decision about whether to impose bail, the court could continue to do so even if George and her deputies decline to request it.

Progressive prosecutors have worked for years to reform the cash bail system and reduce its use, but George appears to be only the second in the country to unilaterally cease to seek bail. The first, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, advised George on the new policy and hailed her decision to follow suit.

“I’m really excited that Vermont is leading the pack along with San Francisco, from coast to coast,” he told Seven Days on Tuesday. “Pretty soon we’re gonna see these policies everywhere in between.”

In addition to ending the practice going forward, George has been seeking to release the roughly 20 Chittenden County defendants that had previously been ordered to be held on bail. As of this week, she said, none was being detained solely for lack of bail at the request of her office, though some remained incarcerated because they also faced charges in other counties.

According to the Department of Corrections, 329 people statewide are currently incarcerated pretrial. That number includes those held on bail, those held without bail and others.

George said her office began moving toward the new policy at the start of the year and doubled down when COVID-19 reached Vermont, citing “the incredible risk” of transmission in the state’s correctional facilities.

She said the decision has not resulted in defendants failing to show up in court. “The posting of bail is not actually the carrot everybody has always hoped or thought it to be,” she said.

Sara Puls, a public defender who works in Chittenden County, called George’s new policy “bold.” She noted that all of the pretrial detainees George’s office has been seeking to release are represented by public defenders, suggesting that they have few resources at their disposal. According to Puls, cash bail is a “completely classist, racist” system.

“There’s just enormous disruption that pretrial bail can bring to someone’s life,” she said. “If they can’t afford to pay it, they can lose their job; they can lose their housing; they can lose their kids; they can lose their relationships.”

George’s decision will only affect defendants in Chittenden County, but she hopes that the legislature will consider ending cash bail throughout the state. Given that Vermont currently pays a private prison company to lodge roughly 220 inmates at a Mississippi facility, she believes that decreasing the prison population is the fiscally prudent thing to do.

“It could save a lot of money and bring our out-of-state prisoners home,” she said.

Since George was appointed state's attorney in 2017, she has carved out a reputation as a progressive prosecutor, occasionally irking other law enforcement officials. In June 2019, George dropped charges against three people accused of murder or attempted murder, arguing that they were legally insane at the time of the crimes. Later that year, after Seven Days reported on alleged abuses at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, George sought the release of women lodged at the South Burlington prison.
George has worked closely with a cohort of colleagues throughout the country who hold similar views on criminal justice reform. Among them is Tiffany Cabán, a former New York City public defender who campaigned to end cash bail when she ran for Queens district attorney last year.

"This is something that we all have been fighting for in this movement for a very long time," Cabán, now a candidate for the New York City Council and a political organizer for the Working Families Party, told Seven Days.

She said it had been a pleasure to work with George to advance the policy in Vermont, and she noted that a number of candidates for district attorney throughout the country who support ending cash bail are poised to take office next year.

"There are going to be a lot of other folks joining the crew," Cabán said.

Added Boudin, the San Francisco district attorney, “I'm just really excited that this is part of a national trend."