When JoAnn and Ned Winterbottom gave their blessing to a 2007 plea agreement involving Gerald Montgomery, they did so believing it would send him to prison for at least the next 43 years. So they were distraught to learn last year that the man who kidnapped, raped and killed their daughter is eligible for a new program that allows prisoners to shave years off their minimum sentence so long as they behave.
"When Montgomery ended Laura’s life, he forever changed my life, my husband’s, her sister’s, and her brother’s," JoAnn Winterbottom told the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, testifying alongside her husband, Ned. "We, in fact, are serving a relentlessly painful lifetime sentence. Allowing him to qualify for an earlier release is not acceptable to us, and it is certainly not in the interest or pursuit of fairness and accountability."
JoAnn and Ned Winterbottom attended Thursday’s virtual hearing to advocate for S.18, a bill that would disqualify certain crimes from Vermont’s “good time” program, which allows offenders to reduce their minimum and maximum sentences by seven days for every month they avoid major disciplinary action.
Lawmakers eliminated the program in 2005 — the same year Laura Winterbottom was murdered — but restored it as part of a package of criminal justice reforms passed last year known as Justice Reinvestment II.
Currently, all Vermont offenders are eligible for the program no matter their crime, with those now in prison able to start earning good time as of this month. The Vermont Department of Corrections sent out a notice about the change last October, prompting victims and families of “some of the most horrific crimes in the state” to contact state officials in distress, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) told Seven Days on Thursday.
S.18 would disqualify offenders from the good time program if they are currently serving time on one of eight specific crimes largely involving murder or sexual assault. Those convicted of such crimes after the bill becomes law would be allowed to ask a judge to deem them eligible for the program. Courts would need to find, however, that the defendant’s participation would “serve the interests of justice without unreasonably affecting public safety.”
Sears, the bill’s lead sponsor, said its language was mostly crafted by the office of Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, who had strongly supported the good time provision last year. Sears said he and Donovan spoke about the victim community’s reaction last year and determined that they had “made a mistake.”
Donovan conceded as much during a December hearing with the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee, saying that he had started thinking about the victims and families of crimes he prosecuted as the Chittenden County State’s Attorney. That included the Winterbottoms: Donovan played a role in negotiating Montgomery’s plea deal, and said he had made “promises” to the family.
He urged lawmakers to disqualify people convicted of murder or sexual assault. “I’ll take responsibility for this: that I didn’t perhaps think as deeply about this part of the bill as I should have,” he said. “Because it comes back to victims.”
Others who initially supported the good-time provision have also changed their tune after hearing from victims and families. Chris Fenno, executive director of the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services, said in a written testimony last week that she did not “fully see the unintended consequences” and expressed support for the changes.
“The very name ‘earned good time’ can trigger a victim by suggesting that the person that committed a heinous crime could be incarcerated and somehow earn good time,” Fenno wrote. “It is important that victims of these crimes be able to have justice serve them. Vermont needs to support victims of these crimes and ensure that the perpetrators serve their sentence.”
Yet not everyone is convinced that the legislature made a mistake in including some of Vermont’s worst offenders. At the December Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee meeting, Defender General Matthew Valerio stressed that the proposal was well vetted and that the parole board will still have discretion over whether people convicted of murder or sexual assault who reach their minimum sentence with the help of earned time will be released.
He said it was "regrettable" that the legislature was considering scaling back the reforms over what, in his mind, was the result of "poor communication" with victims and families. "I don't think you need to roll back what you spent years putting together," he said.
Sears, however, said his priority is to get the bill to Gov. Phil Scott's desk "as soon as possible."